Understanding Food Safety Numbers: “For every step forward, there’s a few steps back.”

Recent CDC reports have shown a 23% general decrease in the number of incidences of food poisoning involving six main bacteria. Campylobacter, Listeria, Salmonella, Shiga-toxin producing E. coli O157, Yersinia and Vibrio collectively dropped when numbers from the late 90s were measured against numbers from 2010. Such a decrease in percentage is encouraging to some experts and critics, but the number, according to some other sources may not be as promising as it first appears. Why is this the case? Apparently, the quantitative measurement has quite a bit of qualitative data behind it that is driving the debate.

There are a few considerations that should be taken into account when looking at these numbers. Opposed to a knockout win for American food safety, Douglas Powell, a professor of food safety at Kansas State University states that the numbers indicate some mixed results: “For every step forward, there’s a few steps back.” A report from FoodQuality.com discussed the fact that the data does reflect an overall drop, but it also leaves out some varieties of E.coli associated with foodborne illness, such as  norovirus, as it is not a bacteria. The numbers may look quite good compared to the information collected in the 1990s, but when compared to information from 2006, the numbers have stagnated, which “may indicate that progress in reducing foodborne illnesses — which are largely preventable through following proper food safety practices — has slowed in recent years.”

 

Another key consideration to keep in mind is that not all incidences individually of bacteria-caused illnesses have declined. Factored into the total of an 23% decrease overall, is the 115% increase linked to Vibrio as well as considering that: “the rate of infections from one type of Salmonella bacteria, called Salmonella enterica, was 44 percent higher in 2010 than in the late 1990s.” Powell states that the Vibrio number may reflect increased awareness and better detection. The salmonella increase is: “likely due to an increase in the amount of chicken and undercooked eggs that people eat. Chicken and eggs are the most common sources of these infections, according to the study.”

Keeping these main considerations, and several others in mind, the CDC looks to be generally encouraged with the results of this downward trend. They cited increased awareness, and better knowledge of preventing contamination, along with other factors for the decline.

Reactions to the numbers have been the subject of discussion and debate, as one can tell from the information above. From general praise to problematizing, it appears some middle ground has been found. First, all sources indicated that Salmonella will be a focused concern in food safety in the coming months and years. Many voices in the conversation also forewarn that this is not the time to feel any false sense of security. There is a lot of work to be done in combatting foodborne illnesses in the United States.

Further continued implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act will bring such discussions even more into the light. Based on this case study, a good deal of conversation will be needed to understand the effectiveness of food safety reform, as the reforms are measured by the government and industry alike in the coming months and years.

A Picture of Mathew J. Bartkowiak, Ph.D.

About Mathew J. Bartkowiak, Ph.D.

Laboratory Products Department Manager, Nelson-Jameson, Inc.
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