The number of deaths from foodborne diseases is likely to be underestimated, finds a study in this week's British Medical Journal - a fact that could force many food manufacturers to re-evaluate present labelling and food safety precautions.
Researchers in Denmark identified 48,857 people infected with the bacteria Salmonella, Campylobacter, Yersinia enterocolitica or Shigella plus 487,138 controls from the general population.
A total of 1,071 (2.2 per cent) of people with gastrointestinal infections died within one year after infection compared with 3,636 (0.7 per cent) of controls. Risk of death was three times higher among patients infected with one of the four bacteria.
Most foodborne gastrointestinal infections are self limiting, say the authors. However, in a subset of patients they can cause severe complications and increased risk of death.
Infections with all these bacteria were associated with an increased short-term risk of death, even after pre-existing illnesses were taken into account. Salmonella, Campylobacter and Yersinia enterocolitica infections were also associated with increased long-term mortality.
Current estimates of the burden of foodborne diseases underestimate the number of deaths from bacterial infections, they conclude.
Although the research did not specify what percentage of foodborne contamination comes from processed and packaged foods, the results of the research will undoubtedly increase the pressure on food manufacturers to reduce the risk of foodborne disease in their products.
Over the past couple of years, several large-scale food poisoning outbreaks caused by processed meat and dairy products in both Japan and the US have done much to change manufacturers' approach to food safety. Many companies are now beginning to invest substantially more into food safety measures, including expenditure on analysis and testing equipment as well as changes to production methods.
Further information on the report and the research project can be obtained by contacting the Public Affairs Division of the British Medical Association. The email contact address is firstname.lastname@example.org