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Food Safety

Food Safety


Improve food safety and reduce foodborne illnesses.


Foodborne illnesses are a burden on public health and contribute significantly to the cost of health care. A foodborne outbreak occurs when 2 or more cases of a similar illness result from eating the same food.1 In 2006, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) received reports of a total of 1,270 foodborne disease outbreaks, which resulted in 27,634 cases of illness and 11 deaths.2

A foodborne outbreak indicates that something in the food safety system needs to be improved. The food safety system includes food:

  • Production
  • Processing
  • Packing
  • Distribution/Transportation
  • Storage
  • Preparation

Public health scientists investigate outbreaks to control them and to learn how to prevent similar outbreaks in the future. Success is measured in part through the reduction in outbreaks of foodborne illnesses.

Why Is Food Safety Important?

Foodborne illness is a preventable and underreported public health problem. It presents a major challenge to both general and at-risk populations. Each year, millions of illnesses in the United States can be attributed to contaminated foods. Children younger than age 4 have the highest incidence of laboratory-confirmed infections from:

  • Campylobacter species
  • Cryptosporidium species
  • Salmonella species
  • Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli O157
  • Shigella species
  • Yersinia species

People older than age 50 are at greater risk for hospitalizations and death from intestinal pathogens commonly transmitted through foods.3 Safer food promises healthier and longer lives, less costly health care, and a more resilient food industry.

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Understanding Food Safety

Many factors determine the safety of the Nation’s food supply. Improper handling, preparation, and storage practices may result in cases of foodborne illness. This can happen in processing and retail establishments and in the home.

Social Determinants of Food Safety

Fewer consumers grow and prepare their own food, preferring instead either to use convenience foods purchased in supermarkets that can quickly be prepared or assembled, or to eat in restaurants. This gives them less control over the foods they eat.

The processing and retail food industries continue to be challenged by:

  • Large employee populations that have high rates of turnover
  • Nonuniform systems for training and certifying workers
  • Ability to rapidly traceback/traceforward food items of interest

In addition, changes in production practices and new sources of food, such as imports, introduce new risks.

Physical Determinants of Food Safety

Food hazards can enter the food supply at any point from farm to table. Many foodborne hazards cannot be detected in food when it is purchased or consumed. These hazards include microbial pathogens and chemical contaminants. In addition, a food itself can cause severe adverse reactions. In the United States, food allergy is an important problem, especially among children under age 18.4


1Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Surveillance for foodborne-disease outbreaks: United States, 1988–92. MMWR CDC Surveill Summ. 1996 Oct 25;45(SS-5):1-55.

2Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Surveillance for foodborne disease outbreaks: United States, 2006. MMWR. 2009 Jun 12;58(22):609-15.

3Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Preliminary FoodNet data on the incidence of infection with pathogens transmitted commonly through food—10 states, 2009. MMWR. 2010;59(14):418-22.

4Branum AM, Lukacs SL. Food allergy among US children: Trends in prevalence and hospitalizations. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics; 2008 Oct. 8 p. (DHHS publication; no. (PHS) 2009–1209); (NCHS Data Brief; no. 10).

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