Well Being

CDC Calls Out Which Foods Cause Most Food-Borne Illness; May Not Be Improving Food Safety At All

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food borne illness causes

In their research on which foods cause the most food-borne illness, the CDC found that vegetables are most likely to make people sick, and poultry is most likely to kill people. They've emphasized in public statements that this shouldn't scare us off from eating vegetables (they seem to mostly want to use the report as an argument for allocating funds to various CDC departments). But they've conveniently avoided analysis of which kinds of farms and food production chains are responsible for illness.

In a summary of the report, the CDC explained their findings and what they mean:

We developed a method of attributing illnesses to food commodities that uses data from outbreaks associated with both simple and complex foods. Using data from outbreak-associated illnesses for 1998–2008, we estimated annual US foodborne illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths attributable to each of 17 food commodities. We attributed 46% of illnesses to produce and found that more deaths were attributed to poultry than to any other commodity. To the extent that these estimates reflect the commodities causing all foodborne illness, they indicate that efforts are particularly needed to prevent contamination of produce and poultry.

But why should we assume that learning which food categories cause the most food-borne illness is even helpful at all?

Salmonella outbreaks and eruptions of E.Coli cases are often linked back to a single farm where contamination occurred, and was then spread thanks to mass production and shipping of food. According to 2011 reports, one in six Americans gets sick from food-borne illness, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die. More recent reports say that food-borne illness has increased by 44% in the last two years; caused by everything from chicken to cantaloupes. And while no food is immune to contamination, big food companies that combine and process mass quantities–of any kind of food–are part of why so many more people are getting sick.

Bill Marler, a food lawyer and advocate for consumer protection and U.S. food safety, explained in an interview with Blisstree last year why big food companies posit a larger threat:

Size matters, when it comes to food safety. A company has an opportunity to increase food safety when they’re more profitable, when they’ve created systems, and when they have the bulk and the wealth to make their products safer.


But if there’s a mistake that gets made, or something happens in the processing that allows pathogens to enter, the chance of causing a problem–a big problem–is exponential. And that’s why you hear about them–because they’re big! And they’re easier to catch when they’re big. Pathogens cross state lines, you have a lot of illnesses, and they get caught.

That simple reality is true whether we're talking about spinach or chicken; cataloupe or cashews.

The CDC no doubt wants to reduce the number of illnesses, hospitalization, and deaths caused by contaminated food. But until they start teasing apart information that helps consumers, instead of protecting the big food companies lobbying for their support, I'm not sure how far they'll get.

In the meantime, eat your vegetables and your meat, and try to get them from a local source. Just remember to wash them and throw them out if they look bad.

Photo: Getty Images