The March 2013 volume of Emerging Infectious Diseases (EID) contains the first-ever report conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of foodborne illnesses and outbreaks and the food that causes them. Data spanning a decade’s worth of foodborne illness outbreaks shows that poultry causes the most food-related deaths in the United States.
The CDC estimates that major foodborne pathogens sicken more than nine million people annually in the U.S. For the study, researchers focused on 4,600 illness outbreaks that occurred from 1998 to 2008 and identified food commodities responsible for causing 128,269 documented cases of foodborne illness, hospitalization, and death.
According to the data, leafy greens caused more illnesses than any other food item, followed by dairy, fruit and nuts, poultry, and thirteen other foods, but illness linked to poultry killed more people by a long shot.
Poultry was also the third-leading cause of food-related hospitalizations in the U.S. during the study period after dairy (1) and leafy vegetables (2).
The CDC cautions that the more frequently a food item is consumed, the more frequently it will be associated with foodborne illnesses even when that food contains a low risk for pathogen transmission. However, the agency says the information is useful for prioritizing public health initiatives.
Unfortunately, U.S. legislators are doing exactly the opposite. Instead of using such data to improve the systems in place that are supposed to protect consumers from dangerous, unhealthful, and unlawful practices that jeopardize the safety of the nation’s food supply, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is planning to drastically reduce government oversight of poultry factories by handing those responsibilities to factory employees.
In the words of the Government Accountability Project’s Food Integrity Campaign, this new poultry inspection model will “take government inspectors off processing lines and hand most of their duties over to company employees; increase line speeds to the point where an inspector has only 1/3 of a second to view a carcass; and make it impossible to examine all parts of the birds for things like scabs, pus, fecal matter, and other signs of disease.”
Without objective oversight, “the probability that diseased and adulterated poultry makes its way onto consumers’ plates will skyrocket,” the Food Integrity Campaign warns.
Even worse is the series of new “Ag Gag” bills being introduced in several states that would make it an act of terrorism to investigate animal cruelty, food safety, and environmental violations on corporate farms, which form the source of most of the country’s meat, eggs, and dairy products.
Keeping consumers in the dark about what their food contains and how it was produced is a major concern for many big food corporations, which simply strive to maximize profits and please the board while gutting or eliminating systems that ought to protect public health and the environment. But now that the CDC is keeping track of foodborne illness outbreaks, it will be interesting to see how the U.S. government abdicating to profit-driven corporations on matters of safety plays out in the future.