(UPDATED COVERAGE, Jan. 31) Research on a decade of foodborne illnesses in the U.S. shows 46% were caused by produce, with produce accounting for 23% of food-related deaths, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.

Data from 1998-2008 is included in a paper written by CDC officials and published in the journal “Emerging Infectious Diseases” online at tinyurl.com/CDC-foodborne-report.

However, another recent report from CDC included good news about food-related illnesses. It says the number of foodborne disease outbreaks reported in 2009 and 2010 declined 32% compared with the mean of the preceding five years.

The information in the CDC’s so-called illness attribution report needs to be considered in context, said David Gombas, senior vice president of food safety and technology for the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C.

CDC reports produce causes 46% of foodborne illnesses“It is important to get this information out,” Gombas said, “but consumers need to remember that the industry has put a lot of new provisions in place since 2008 to improve food safety.”

Gombas also said the research demonstrates how much work is left to be done, especially in the area of education for those in the industry, as well as consumers.

“A lot of produce-related illnesses result from mishandling by consumers — the so-called church supper symdrome,” Gombas said, referring to foods being left at room temperature too long.

Kathy Means, vice president for government relations and public affairs for the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del., agreed with Gombas about the context of the CDC information.

CDC reports produce causes 46% of foodborne illnesses“This isn’t news news,” Means said. “It’s just packaged differently.

“Outbreaks linked to produce have spurred us to make food safety a top priority and to put that commitment into action. In the intervening five years, we’ve made great strides in food safety.”

Means pointed to the founding of Center for Produce Safety (CPS) at the University of California-Davis and millions of dollars the industry has invested to discover practical solutions to food safety.

The executive director of the CPS, Bonnie Fernandez-Fenaroli, said the timing of the CDC’s information is fortuitous.

“We use these types of reports as a tool to help identify research that needs to be done,” she said. “We are issuing our annual call for research proposals Friday (Feb. 1) so this timing works well.”

The CDC researchers estimate 9.6 million annual illnesses related to foods. For analysis purposes, they split produce into subgroups of:

  • fruits-nuts;
  • fungi;
  • leafy vegetables;
  • root vegetables;
  • sprouts; and
  • vine-stalk vegetables (tomatoes, cucumbers, etc.)

The data shows leafy vegetables were associated with more illnesses than any other single commodity with 2.1 million cases estimated annually. That represents 23% of the annual foodborne illnesses the CDC estimates are caused by food.

Means pointed to the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement as an example of how that segment of the industry has aggressively addressed food safety. She also cited the Produce Traceability Initiative as another move by industry to enhance food safety.

Chief executive officer of the LGMA Scott Horsfall posted a statement on the organization’s website in response to the CDC’s report. He said that 99% of leafy greens grown in California are covered by the agreement and that many foodborne illness outbreaks come from contamination introduced after fresh produce has left the farm.

“According to this report, Norovirus is responsible for 57% of foodborne illness cases; this particular pathogen is almost always spread via food handling after the produce leaves the farm,” Horsfall’s statement says.

After leafy vegetables, the commodities linked to the most illnesses were dairy with an estimated 1.3 million illnesses representing 14% of the total, and fruits/nuts with 1.2 million illnesses representing 12% of the total.

The CDC researchers concluded that an estimated 629 food-related deaths annually, or 43%, are linked to land animals. All plants, which includes the produce subgroups and grains, beans, sugars and oils, accounted for 363 deaths, or 25%. About 94 deaths, or 6%, were linked to aquatic commodities.

Meat-poultry commodities accounted for 29% of deaths and produce accounted for 23%, the CDC reported. Poultry accounted for the most deaths at 19%, followed by dairy at 10%, vine-stalk vegetables at 7%, fruits/nuts at 6%, and leafy vegetables at 6%.