Americans are twice as likely to get food poisoning from food prepared at a restaurant compared with food prepared at home, newly published data from the Center for Science in the Public Interest shows.
The Washington, D.C.-based CSPI published “Outbreak Alert! 2014” in April, and a news release from the group highlighted the disparity in outbreaks linked to restaurants.
In their 17-page report, the CSPI look at “solved” outbreaks of foodborne illness over the course of a decade, where both the food and pathogen linked to an outbreak were identified by investigators. The report, reviewing foodborne outbreaks from 2002-11, found 1,610 outbreaks in restaurants made more than 28,000 people sick.
On the other hand, 893 outbreaks linked to private homes resulted in about 13,000 cases of foodborne illness.
Joan McGlockton, vice president of industry affairs and food policy for the National Restaurant Association, said overall reports of foodborne illness have declined over time.
"The fact that states reported 42%fewer outbreaks in 2011 than in 2002 is a positive trend," she said in a statement. She said the NRA's ServSafe food preparation training program has trained more than 5.6 million food service workers across the U.S. in safe food handling.
“Food safety in restaurants depends on safe ingredients and food safety best practices in preparation, handling and service," McGlockton said in the statement. "The enactment and now proposed regulations for implementation of FSMA will provide for safer imported and domestically produced foods.”
The United Fresh Produce Association and the Food and Drug Administration were not immediately available for comment on the report.
A spokeswoman for CSPI said the data was important.
“It helps to dispel the persistent myth that if only consumers did a better job of cooking their food, there would be far fewer outbreaks and illnesses,” said Sarah Klein, senior staff attorney with the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
“That is a myth that upsets the families of victims and advocates who work hard to see change at the producer, retail and restaurant levels.”
The “passing of the buck” to consumers is not backed up by CSPI findings, she said.
“Because the data shows that the problem is coming out of restaurants more so than private homes, it illustrates that even in an environment where food handlers are trained and are overseen by certified food managers, that foodborne illness is still an enormous problem,” she said.
Another reason that the finding that restaurants were implicated in more foodborne outbreaks is significant is that it validates the call for more transparency in food safety inspections of restaurants.
“These are inspections that are performed to prevent foodborne illness, paid for by taxpayer dollars, and yet they are largely hidden from the public in filing cabinets in back of the health department,” she said.
Most consumers in many parts of the country find it next to impossible to access inspections for restaurants.
CSPI favors a letter grade system for food safety inspections, which Klein said can drive food safety improvements in restaurants.
Because of under reporting of foodborne illness, Klein said it is impossible to know the true number of outbreaks at restaurants and at homes. Klein said it is entirely plausible that there could be much more outbreaks coming from private homes, or that restaurants had even more outbreaks than the statistics show.
“The under reporting of foodborne illness makes a vast quantity of illnesses that are unattributable to a location,” she said.
Klein said health departments are underfunded, understaffed and under supported.
The CSPI report fond that fresh produce was responsible for the greatest overall number of outbreaks and illnesses from 2002 to 2011. However, when measured by risk of illness based on per pound of food consumed, fresh produce was among the safest foods to eat, according to the CSPI report. The trend for produce-related outbreaks turned lower from 2008 to 2011. With data not yet available for 2012 and 2013, Klein said it was impossible to say if there continues to be a lessening of produce-related outbreaks.
“We’re hopeful that the (Food Safety Modernization Act) will improve produce safety and that’s why we have been working so hard to get the regs from FDA as close to right and as close to done as they can be,” she said.
The CSPI report looked at 3,933 outbreaks that occurred in the most recent 10-year period. Of that total, the CSPI report said 667 foodborne illness outbreaks were caused by produce, compared with 602 for seafood, 413 for poultry, 324 for beef and 202 for dairy.