2018 Takes the Prize for Foodborne Illness Outbreaks

Public Domain. MaxPixel

Maybe there's something wrong with our food production system.

Foodborne illnesses are on the rise in the United States. A dismal annual report just released by the Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) reveals that over 25,000 Americans got sick and 120 died last year from food-related infections, making 2018 the worst year for multi-state outbreaks in more than a decade.

From the Washington Post:

"The CDC logged 23 multistate investigations last year, the most in at least a dozen years, tracking major E. coli outbreaks linked to romaine, a salmonella outbreak in eggs, raw beef products, frozen chicken and canned pork, as well as outbreaks related to individual food products such as Kellogg’s Honey Smacks, I.M. Healthy SoyNut Butter, Lebanon bologna and Hy-Vee Spring Pasta Salad."

Nearly half of all illnesses come from vegetables, followed by meat and poultry, dairy and eggs, fish and shellfish. Campylobacter was the cause of 9,723 cases, and salmonella, which has not reduced in incidence in the past ten years despite regulatory efforts, was linked to 9,084 cases. E.coli infections numbered 2,925. These outbreaks are costly to the health case system, totalling $3 billion annually.

A spokesman at the Natural Resources Defense Council, Erik Olson, said tools for detecting pathogens have improved greatly in recent years, which could be a factor in the rising numbers, but inadequate food-safety legislation continues to be a major obstacle. He told the Washington Post,

"[This] may contribute to ongoing foodborne illness problems such as the deadly E. coli outbreak in romaine from Yuma, Ariz., that sickened 210 people and killed five. The largest outbreak in 10 years, reported in 36 states, was linked to tainted water in an irrigation canal from a nearby cattle ranch."

It has been suggested that improving vaccinations for animals could reduce outbreaks, with the United Kingdom being used as an example in the report: "In the United Kingdom, vaccination of both broiler and layer chickens against Enteritidis, along with improved hygiene, was followed by a marked decrease in human Enteritidis infections."

The mention of 'improved hygiene' merits further discussion, as the UK is known for having higher agricultural standards than the US; that's why it vehemently protested the import of American 'chlorinated chicken'. George Monbiot pointed out that bacterial infections are four to five times higher in the U.S. than in Europe, and there's good reason for that:

"Washing chicken carcasses with chlorine allows farmers and processors to save the money they might have spent on systemic sanitation throughout the chicken’s life and death. You need only dunk the meat in a chlorine bath to kill any accumulated germs."

Perhaps American regulators should look to the conditions in which countries with safer food production systems are raising and slaughtering animals and take a lesson from those. More localized production could help, for example. When it comes to vegetables, the closer you can get to the source of your food, the better.

Part of the problem with the Great Romaine E.Coli Outbreak of 2018 was its circuitous journey from farm to table, with the lettuce harvested, packed, shipped, stored, washed, chopped, mixed with other lettuce, and repackaged. Forbes wrote, "These are the many touch points that could be the culprit of the contamination."

The CDC report is a scary one and a sure sign that the current food production is failing us. It desperately needs an overhaul before more people fall sick and die.