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New Foodborne Illness Numbers Show Scientific Progress, Not Industry Success

Food safety at its core is about science and public health. Every day, the USDA, FDA, environmental health specialists, food inspectors, the food industry, university researchers, and others invest in, develop, and use science and technology to develop food safety systems that protect consumers from becoming ill with foodborne illness.

While improvements to our food safety system are welcome, we often see resistance to change for various reasons, two of those being that risks are not always communicated effectively, and it costs money to invest in food safety. Real, comprehensive change can only come with buy-in from everyone involved in food safety and those elected to represent Americans. And for that, the issue has had to become political.

For me, that means that I find myself in Washington D.C., trudging through the snow to pay last-ditch-effort visits to politicians and bureaucrats, advocating for food safety legislation. But while the legislation (now part of a continuing resolution) gets reshaped and redefined in Congress, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has brought science back to the forefront with its release of new foodborne illness statistics.

The CDC's most recent estimates use numbers from 2000-2008 and show that 47.8 million illnesses, 127,839 hospitalizations, and 3,037 deaths can be attributed to foodborne illness every year in the United States. Those numbers are startling, but are not nearly as appalling as those reported in an earlier (1999) study published by the CDC: 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths. Based on the new numbers, one would think investments in science and technology have pointed our nation's food industry in the right direction and I'd like to think there's some merit to that thought.

But before we start celebrating, there's a problem: according to the new study's authors we cannot compare the new numbers to the old ones. Because of significant differences in methods used in data collection between the studies we are not able to accurately say that we've made progress in food safety in the last decade. What we can do, however, is recognize that standardizing data collection and the methods involved in tracing foodborne illness are necessary for making number-comparisons from year to year (or decade to decade).

The new estimates will certainly be scrutinized and used to promote different agendas. Remember, the data is only as good as the surveillance. We need to continue to support local, state and federal public health. They need the resources to keep us all healthier.

I also encourage everyone to pause and remember that the estimates represent a compilation of individuals - hundreds and thousands of people I have met personally--my clients. Thankfully, most individuals will experience mild symptoms and think of their illness as a minor inconvenience. For an unfortunate few, foodborne illness will mean physical and mental anguish, financial expenditures, long-term consequences, or death.

While I can't say I'm encouraged by the numbers -- or that they really tell us anything new -- I think the CDC is moving in the right direction and I hope to see our nation's public health agencies keep plugging away to provide numbers that will help drive advancements on the science side of food safety. As for me, I'll do what I can on the political side.

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