Reduce foodborne illnesses in the United States by improving food safety-related behaviors and practices.
Foodborne illnesses are a burden on public health and contribute significantly to the cost of health care. Each year foodborne illnesses sicken 48 million Americans (approximately 17% of people in the United States) and lead to 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths.1 A small percentage of these illnesses are the result of identified foodborne outbreaks, which happen when two or more cases of similar illnesses result from eating the same food.2 Investigations of foodborne outbreaks, along with analyses of data on the germs that make us sick and behaviors that contribute to food contamination, help us identify where we can make improvements in the country’s food safety system.3 This system spans from growing the food on the farm through processing, packing, distribution, transportation, and storage, to preparing it to be eaten.
Why Is Food Safety Important?
Foodborne illnesses are a preventable and underreported public health problem. These illnesses are a burden on public health and contribute significantly to the cost of health care. They also present a major challenge to certain groups of people. Although anyone can get a foodborne illness, some people are at greater risk. For example:
Children younger than age 4 have the highest incidence of laboratory-confirmed infections from some foodborne pathogens, including Campylobacter, Cryptosporidium, Salmonella, Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli O157, Shigella, and Yersinia.4
People older than age 50 and those with reduced immunity are at greater risk for hospitalizations and death from intestinal pathogens commonly transmitted through foods.4
Safer food promises healthier and longer lives and less costly health care, as well as a more resilient food industry.
Understanding Food Safety
Physical Determinants of Food Safety
Food hazards, including germs and chemical contaminants, can enter the food supply at any point from farm to table. Most of these hazards cannot be detected in food when it is purchased or consumed. In addition, a food itself can cause severe adverse reactions in people who are allergic to it. In the United States, food allergies are a significant concern, both among children under age 18 and some adults.5,6
Social and Behavioral Determinants of Food Safety
It is important for people to understand how their behavior and activities contribute to the safety of food and how they can decrease the risk of foodborne illness. From processes on the farm to practices in the kitchen, human activities play an important role in food safety. We face many challenges in keeping our food safe.
The food industry is challenged by:
Large employee populations with high rates of turnover, communication challenges, and cultural differences in how food is prepared
Non-uniform systems for training and certifying workers
Lack of sick leave policies for sick workers
Difficulties in tracing food items to their sources
Changes in production practices
Consumers are challenged by:
Determining when certain foods are cooked to appropriate temperatures
Separating more risky foods from less risky foods
Storing food at safe temperatures
Properly cleaning hands and surfaces
Foodborne illness surveillance and consumer complaints alert public health and regulatory agencies that a hazardous product is in commerce and should be recalled. The investigation of foodborne illnesses focuses agencies and the food industry on identifying problems, initiating control activities, and improving practices. Prevention activities and collaborative efforts by the food industry, regulatory and public health agencies, and consumers are needed to reduce foodborne illness in the United States.
1Scallan E, Hoekstra RM, Angulo FJ, Tauxe RV, Widdowson M-A, Roy SL, et al. Foodborne illness acquired in the United States—major pathogens. Emerg Infect Dis [serial on the Internet]. 2011 Jan.2011 Jan [cited October 29, 2015]. http://dx.doi.org/10.3201/eid1701.P11101
2Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Appendix B, Guidelines for confirmation of foodborne-disease outbreaks, MMWR CDC Surveill Summ 2000 Mar 17, 49(SS-01); 54-62. http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/ss4901a3.htm
4Centers 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. http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5914a2.htm
5Branum AM, Lukacs SL. Food allergy among U.S. 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).
6Verrill, L., R. Bruns, and S. Luccioli. Prevalence of self-reported food allergy in US adults: 2001, 2006, and 2010, Allergy Asthma Proc 36:1-10, 2015, doi: 10.2500/ aap.2015.36.3895