According to a new inter-agency report, foodborne pathogens in the United States cause about 9 million people to get sick, with 55,000 hospitalized, and an estimated 1,000 deaths, but a system for identifying which foods most often are responsible for illnesses associated with particular pathogens has been lacking. The report outlines a new method for tracking and reporting that information relating to the four most prevalent foodborne pathogens. 

The report, titled “Foodborne Illness Source Attribution Estimates for SalmonellaEscherichia coli O157 (E. coli O157), Listeria monocytogenes (L. monocytogenes), and Campylobacter using Outbreak Surveillance Data,” was produced by the Interagency Food Safety Analytics Collaboration (IFSAC), a partnership between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the FDA and the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).

According to the report, for SalmonellaE. coli O157, L. monocytogenes and Campylobacter together cause 1.9 million cases of foodborne illness in the United States each year.

In preparing the report, IFSAC researchers analyzed data from nearly 1,000 outbreaks that occurred from 1998 to 2012 to assess which categories of foods were most responsible for making people sick from each of the four pathogens. The researchers divided food into 17 categories for the analysis. The pathogens were chosen because of the frequency or severity of the illnesses they cause, and because targeted interventions can have a significant impact in reducing them.

The findings include:

·         More than 80 percent of E. coli O157 illnesses were attributed to beef and vegetable row crops, such as leafy vegetables.

·         Salmonella illnesses were broadly attributed across food commodities, with 77 percent of illnesses related to seeded vegetables (such as tomatoes), eggs, fruits, chicken, beef, sprouts and pork.

·         Nearly 75 percent of Campylobacter illnesses were attributed to dairy (66 percent) and chicken (8 percent). Most of the dairy outbreaks used in the analysis were related to raw milk or cheese produced from raw milk, such as unpasteurized queso fresco.

·         More than 80 percent of Listeria illnesses were attributed to fruit (50 percent) and dairy (31 percent). Data were sparse for Listeria, and the estimate for fruit reflects the impact of a single large outbreak linked to cantaloupes in 2011.

Due to limitations in outbreak data and uncertainty in the estimates, IFSAC recommends caution in interpreting some of the report’s findings, such as the estimates for Campylobacter in dairy and Listeria in fruits. IFSAC suggests that the results be used with other scientific data for risk-based decision making.

Find the full report online.