By Katherine Hobson
According to the CDC, about one in six Americans comes down with some kind of foodborne illness every year. But while the agency ranks pathogens by how frequently they cause illness, it doesn’t tell you the foods in which they’re likely to be dangerous to public health.
Afrom the University of Florida’s Emerging Pathogens Institute takes a first step at identifying the specific pathogen-food combinations that pose the greatest public-health threat, in terms of short- and long-term costs as well as pain and suffering. ( a summary of the report.)
“The public-health impact isn’t the number of cases of 24-hour diarrhea,” Glenn Morris, director of the EPI and an author of the report, tells the Health Blog. This analysis shifts the focus “towards the diseases that cause long-term disability and death.”
That’s important not so much because you should avoid poultry out of fear of falling ill from ingesting Campylobacter — the top pathogen-food health threat on the list, costing $1.3 billion a year and having the largest impact on quality of life — but because the information can help direct preventive efforts. (See the full list below.)
“It’s a great idea,” Michael Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, tells the Health Blog. “It gives regulators a better understanding of where to put their resources.” (He wasn’t involved with this report but has previously collaborated with the authors.)
Control efforts depend on whether the biggest threat is from microbes contaminating beef, pork, poultry, dairy, produce or peanut butter. “The way you approach the problem and the potential interventions may be entirely different depending on what the food is,” says Morris.
Morris says it’s not easy to get this kind of data given the fragmented U.S. food-safety system, and that the report should be taken as a “first step” rather than the final word. It combines outbreak data, expert advice and other data.
We reached out to various industry groups representing the producers of foods on the list and will add comments as we get them.
In a statement, James Hodges, executive vice president of the American Meat Institute (which also represents the poultry industry), says the report “highlights an area that should be strengthened: our lack of data that clearly identifies which foods cause foodborne illnesses” and emphasizes the tentative nature of the conclusions.
The National Chicken Council says the report “may not have captured improvements made by the industry in processing raw chickens.”
The National Pork Producers Council notes that as a percentage of total illness, toxoplasma in pork and other foods accounts for less than one percent of foodborne illness, and that the industry has developed its own program to identify the “practices with potential to result in food-safety hazards.”
The International Dairy Foods Association says that “virtually all” instances of listeria in dairy products occur in unpasteurized milk and cheeses (some of them imported), and that it will in May launch a food-safety workshop “focused on developing a uniform approach to in-plant pathogen control.”
And now, for the list:
- Campylobacter in poultry: $1.3 billion annually, 9,500 lost quality adjusted life years (QALYs)
- Toxoplasma in pork: $1.2 billion, 4,500 QALYs
- Listeria in deli meats: $1.1 billion, 4,000 QALYs
- Salmonella in poultry: $700 million, 3,600 QALYs
- Listeria in dairy products: $700 million, 2,600 QALYs
- Salmonella in complex foods: $600 million, 3,200 QALYs
- Norovirus in complex foods: $900 million, 2,300 QALYs
- Salmonella in produce: $500 million, 2,800 QALYs
- Toxoplasma in beef: $700 million, 2,500 QALYs
- Salmonella in eggs: $400 million, 1,900 QALYs
Image of salmonella at 8,000X magnification by CDC/Bette Jensen