Approximately 1 in every 6 Americans gets sick from foodborne illnesses annually in the United States; that’s 48 million people. 128,000 end up in hospital and 3,000 die, according to a report issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and published in two articles in Emerging Infectious Diseases.

The authors say we have a much better idea now which pathogens are causing the most infections, as well as how many cases of infection have no known causes. This is the CDC’s first estimate of illnesses caused only by foods consumed in the USA.

CDC Director Thomas Frieden, M.D, M.P.H., said:

    “We’ve made progress in better understanding the burden of foodborne illness and unfortunately, far too many people continue to get sick from the food they eat. These estimates provide valuable information to help CDC and its partners set priorities and further reduce illnesses from food.”

The last time the CDC issued a large report was in 1999, the authors explain. The new estimates are lower than the previous ones, mainly because of better data quality and quantity, as well as new methods to estimated foodborne-disease. We now know that norovirus is not spread through food, this was not the case in 1999.

The CDC estimates that there are 20% fewer illnesses than 10 years ago from key pathogens. However, in the new estimates other pathogens make up the majority of illnesses.

There are now about 48 million illnesses each year, the CDC believes, of which 9.4 million are caused by 31 known food pathogens. 38 million illnesses are caused by unspecified agents, possibly known agents for which not enough data is available to make specific estimates, the authors wrote. A number of agents that have not yet been recognized are also causing foodborne illnesses, as well as agents we have simply do not know about. About 80% of estimated illnesses are caused by unspecified agents.

FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D., said:

    “Foodborne illnesses and deaths are preventable, and as such, are unacceptable. We must, and can, do better by intensifying our efforts to implement measures that are prevention-oriented and science-based. We are moving down this path as quickly as possible under current authorities but eagerly await passage of new food safety legislation that would provide us with new and long overdue tools to further modernize our food safety program.”

Below is some highlighted information regarding pathogens we know about:

  • 28% of deaths and 35% of hospitalizations were caused by salmonella.
  • Salmonella, norovirus, Campylobacter, Toxoplasma, E.coli O157, Listeria and Clostridium perfringens caused 90% of deaths, hospitalizations and illnesses.
  • Almost 60% of estimated illnesses were caused by norovirus. However, norovirus caused a considerably smaller proportion of severe illness.

Christopher Braden, M.D., director of CDC’s Division of Foodborne, Waterborne, and Environmental Diseases, said:

    “People expect food to nourish them, not to harm them. So we need to intensify efforts to decrease the number of illnesses and deaths due to foodborne diseases. We now know more than ever what pathogens are causing the most harm, and we will continue our work to help protect people from these illnesses. Much that remains unknown about how and why people get sick and we are committed to learning more in the future.”

The CDC urges people to be careful when preparing foods, making sure they separate meats from other produce, cook meats and poultry to the right temperatures, and make sure leftovers are refrigerated immediately. Unpasteurized milk and cheese as well as raw oysters should be avoided, the CDC adds.

“Foodborne Illness Acquired in the United States – Major Pathogens” (PDF)
E. Scallan et al.

“Foodborne Illness Acquired in the United States – Unspecified Agents” (PDF)
E. Scallan et al.

“How Safe Is Our Food?” (PDF)
J.G. Morris, Jr.

Written by Christian Nordqvist