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Many states struggle with foodborne illness reporting

By Caroline Scott-Thomas , 24-Mar-2010

Many states are struggling to investigate and report foodborne illness outbreaks, according to research from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

Looking at data from 2007, the most recent year in which such information is available, CSPI found that reporting of foodborne illness and the quality of information provided to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) varied widely across the country.

CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal said: “State and local health departments are our first line of defense when it comes to identifying the food that causes an outbreak. But some states may not have enough investigators or the money to train and equip their staff, which can lead to lower-quality investigations and lower rates of reporting.”

The organization took Minnesota and Oregon as a baseline – two states that it says are recognized as having excellent food safety reporting mechanisms in place, including surveillance, investigation and reporting. Each reported ten illness outbreaks per million people in 2007. CSPI found that seven states actually had a better record than these two, when taking into account the number of foodborne illness outbreaks reported, as well as the quality of information given to the CDC.

However, 23 states reported three or fewer foodborne illness outbreaks per million people during 2007, with 12 reporting just one.

DeWaal is due to present the organization’s findings at a food safety conference in Atlanta today, cosponsored by the US Department of Agriculture and NSF International.

The role of legislation

CSPI added that the pending Food Safety Modernization Act, which is currently awaiting a full hearing in the Senate, could help improve states’ reporting of foodborne illness. It includes provisions to improve communication between food safety and health officials on local, state and federal levels.

“State outbreak reporting is a vital piece of our national food safety system, and the information gathered in the course of outbreak investigations can reduce the impact of outbreaks and prevent future ones. Action on Senate bill would help strengthen both federal and state food safety programs,” DeWaal said.

According to CDC figures, about 76m people fall ill as a result of foodborne illness in the United States each year. Of those, 375,000 are hospitalized and 5,000 die.

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