An extensive review of foodborne disease surveillance since 1996 shows less than desired progress in slowing the incidence of foodborne illnesses and suggests education is one of the best preventive measures.
Analysis of the data shows that limited resources at local and state levels is a primary roadblock to progress, said Barbara Mahon, deputy chief of the enteric diseases epidemiology branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Mahon helped coordinate the review of data from the Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network, better known by its nickname, FoodNet. Federal health officials issue a report card every year on the fight against foodborne illnesses, but this year a more detailed approach resulted in the CDC publishing 18 research reports on data from FoodNet.
The reports are not currently available to the general public. They are in the June issue of “Clinical Infectious Diseases” published by the Oxford Journals. An overview and abstracts of individual reports are available at http://tinyurl.com/FoodNet-research.
“The bottom line is that there isn’t one bottom line,” Mahon said. “The research illustrates FoodNet’s role as a foundation for food safety in this country. ... The scope of information it provides is so broad.”
FoodNet is a collaberative program between the CDC, 10 state health departments, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and the Food and Drug Administration. FoodNet staff in state health departments work with state labs to gather and report information about foodborne illnesses.
Mahon said FoodNet data is used to assess the effect of food safety initiatives related to foodborne illness.
FoodNet, founded in 1995, collects data that represent 15% of the U.S. population. In-depth analysis of FoodNet data on six foodborne pathogens tracked from 1996 through 2010 showed an overall 23% drop in incidents. However, officials are concerned because the rate of decrease slowed to 3% after 2006.
None of the research papers suggested any specific remedies for the fresh produce industry. One report on illness patterns based on gender showed women are more likely than men to eat fresh produce, but only one “high-risk” food — alfalfa sprouts — was consumer more often by women than men.
Mahon said the “richness of the data collected by FoodNet goes beyond the annual reports” that it has traditionally generated. For example, one of the 18 research papers documents a dramatic decline in the number of black children in Georgia contracting infections related to improperly cooked chitterlings.