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CDC: Food Poisonings on the Rise, Improved Prevention Needed

On Thursday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported a rise in food poisonings in 2012. The cause: Two strands of bacteria—one commonly found in livestock such as cows and chickens, the other in seafood such as oysters.

An estimated 48 million Americans—or about 15 percent of the population—experience some kind of food poisoning each year, with only a handful of that number requiring hospitalization.

Overall, there were 19,531 cases of infection confirmed by a laboratory in 2012, which resulted in 4,500 hospitalizations and 68 deaths. In 2011, there were 18,964 cases. In 2008, there were 18,624 cases.

The rise in confirmed incidences of food poisonings is pushing experts to continue to fight for stricter safety standards in the processing and handling of food. 

In its annual FOODNet report, the CDC stated the increase “showed a lack of recent progress in reducing foodborne infections and highlight the need for improved prevention.”

Food poisoning causes an array of symptoms that affect the digestive system, such as nausea, vomiting, and stomach cramps. Severe problems typically only occur in children, the elderly, or people with comprised immune systems.

Campylobacter and Vibrio on the Rise

The CDC reported a 14 percent increase of food poisoning caused by the Campylobacter bacteria and a 43 percent increase in Vibrio bacteria.

Campylobacter is a group of bacteria that typically causes diarrhea. It’s found in the intestines of livestock—most commonly chickens—and pets, although infected animals have no symptoms. The infection a problem when extended periods of diarrhea can cause dehydration and other complications. The CDC report states Campylobacter was highest among children under five years old.

Vibrio vulnificus normally lives in seawater and is ingested through contaminated seafood, like oysters. It causes typical food poisoning symptoms in healthy people, but it can cause more severe complications in people with compromised immune systems. It’s typically rare, but like all forms of food poisoning, it’s under reported. 

Compared to the first three years of FoodNet surveillance (1996-1998), the incidence of Vibrio infections has risen 116 percent. However, incidences of other foodborne pathogens, such as Salmonella, was either unchanged or lowered.

However, the CDC estimates, that for every Campylobacter infection confirmed in the lab, another 30 cases aren’t diagnosed. For Vibrio, it’s as many as 142 unreported cases for each confirmed one.

More Room For Improvement

Dr. Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the CDC’s foodborne disease division, said Thursday that despite industry and regulation changes that have addressed specific problems and new regulations should better improve the disease rates. 

“This information helps us know how we're doing in reducing foodborne illness and what germs or pathogens are most responsible for those illnesses,” he said in a teleconference with reporters. “Following the trends over time, which pathogens are increasing, infections decreasing or staying the same offers some insights to many partners on how to save lives and protect people.”

The CDC isn’t alone in saying the latest numbers show room for improvement in food safety practices.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest called the rise in Campylobacter and Vibro “troubling,” not because of the number of cases, but because of the significant illness it causes. The watchdog group called for better controls in the food industry, including testing chicken flocks for the bacteria.

The Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011 gave the U.S. Food and Drug Administration more authority to regulate food industries. One change included adhering to Campylobacter contamination standards of chickens in processing plants. 

The latest foodborne outbreak involved a possible E. coli contamination of Rich Farm and Market Day products. The company, Rich Products Corporation in Buffalo, N.Y., issued a recall earlier this month for all products produced at their processing plant in Waycross, Geo., with the best-buy dates ranging from Jan. 1, 2013, to Sept. 29, 2014. 

Ensuring Your Food Is Safe

“It's important to also note that consumers have a role to play following simple food safety guidelines for the foods they prepare for themselves and others, especially when they prepare them for people at higher risk for severe illness,” Tauxe said. 

Food poisoning is best prevented through proper handling and storage. Some ways to keep your family safe include:

  • Properly washing hands, utensils and all produce (even if it’s bagged)
  • Avoiding cross-contamination with produce and uncooked meat
  • Cooking meat to the proper internal temperature
  • Freezing or refrigerating food below 34 degrees

For more information about what kinds of organisms can cause food poisoning, as well as their symptoms and treatments, see the CDC’s Foodborne Illness Fact Sheet.

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