A Minnesota infectious disease expert says the nation hasn't made any significant progress on food safety in a decade, despite what Americans may have heard in recent months.
Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, said many media outlets got the story wrong when they reported this winter that foodborne disease cases are down substantially from the late 1990s.
He also said it's a mistake for Americans to assume that the nation's new food safety law will make the food supply safer without a funding appropriation from Congress.
In a commentary in latest edition of the New England Journal of Medicine, Osterholm said the perception problem began in mid-December. That's when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new estimates on the number of Americans who develop food-related diseases each year.
"Most of the coverage that occurred with regard to the change in estimates for foodborne disease was ... I guess you'd call it quite shallow," he said.
INVALID DATA COMPARISONS AT FAULT
The CDC estimates he's referring to show that there are approximately 48 million foodborne illnesses in the U.S. each year. That figure looks like a dramatic drop if you compare it to the 76 million cases the CDC estimated in its first report, back in 1999. And that's a comparison that many media outlets made. Unfortunately, said Osterholm, it's not valid.
CDC authors pointed out that they used different methods and assumptions in analyzing their 2010 data. But Osterholm said that part was often omitted in news stories.
"The bottom line message is that you can't compare this particular estimate that was just put out by the CDC with the one from 1999," he said. "And a lot of people did saying, 'Oh look. There has been a big drop.'"
Besides being inaccurate, Osterholm said the problem with that interpretation is that it could lead to complacency on food safety.
"Any number of individuals, organizations may view that the numbers have gone down and therefore we don't need to do anything else," he said. "I don't think it's just lawmakers. I think it's those in the food industry. I think it's people who handle and cook food."
While it's not appropriate to compare the CDC's disease estimates from 1999 to 2010, Osterholm said there is another way to track infection trends in the U.S. The FoodNet system has conducted detailed disease surveillance in Minnesota and several other states since the mid-1990s.
According to FoodNet data, there hasn't been a dramatic drop in foodborne illnesses in the U.S. -- though there have been some improvements.
"FoodNet shows us that there has been progress in several of these infections, like E. coli 0157, like listeria and like campylobacter," said Dr. Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the CDC's Division of Foodborne, Bacterial and Mycotic Diseases. "But for other infections like salmonella, which is one of the most common of all, there hasn't been much progress."
Even in areas where states have seen the most improvement -- for example the drop in diseases caused by meat and poultry -- Tauxe said most of those declines were recorded in the first part of the decade, and not recently.
That's the message that the public needs to hear, particularly as Congress and the president hammer out their spending priorities in the new budget, said Erik Olson, director of Food and Consumer Safety Programs at the Pew Health Group, a non-partisan research organization.
The new Food Safety Modernization Act signed last month gives the Food and Drug Administration broader authority to inspect and regulate food facilities. But Olson said without additional money to pay for those activities, the potential of the law won't be realized.
"Until we have that, we're just going to continue having outbreaks and having recalls that will affect consumers in Minnesota as well as across the country," Olson said.
Of the 48 million Americans who are sickened by food-related illnesses each year, the CDC estimates that 128,000 are hospitalized, with 3,000 of those patients dying from their illness.