Diners are more likely to get food poisoning in U.S. restaurants than eating at home, according to a new study. In fact, eating out doubles the risk of getting food poisoning than making one’s one meals. This is one finding published in the study report
Each year, approximately 1 in 6 Americans get sick from food-borne diseases. Of the 48 million afflicted, roughly 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A Washington, D.C., non-profit group looked at the available data on food poisoning cases the last decade to identify food safety trends and can highlight potential improvements in food safety control programs.
The nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) analyzed “solved” foodborne illness outbreaks – ones where investigators determine the food and pathogen that caused the illness – over 10 years. Their resulting Outbreak Alert! 2014, A Review of Foodborne Illness in America From 2002-2011 report outlined the research and results.
CSPI found more than 1,610 foodborne illness outbreaks in restaurants made more than 28,000 people sick, whereas 893 outbreaks likely to have come from a private home resulted in nearly 13,000 food poisoning cases, according to the group. The research indicated that outbreak information for Salmonella, Botulism, E. coli O157:H7, hepatitis A or Listeria showed they were twice as likely to come from food prepared in a restaurant than food prepared at home.
The number of documented outbreaks in recent years has actually declined. However, that does not mean fewer people are getting sick from food, the CSPI pointed out.
Only 42 percent of outbreaks were reported by the states to the CDC in recent years because of budget cuts on state levels. The recession, influenza, fears of other virus pandemics and bioterrorism prevention diverted state public health funds and attention away from foodborne outbreaks, according to CSPI food safety direct Caroline Smith DeWaal. Outbreak underreporting has reached epidemic proportions, DeWaal noted. However, the CSPI study did glean information from the available outbreak investigations to make some science-based recommendations to consumers.
There is a data and regulatory disparity that creates uneven inspection results. Produce was responsible for the greatest number of outbreaks. However, the CSPI found it to be among the safest foods to eat overall. Part of the disparity is differences in regulation and reporting.
Fresh produce, packaged foods and seafood fall under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Those foods led to more than twice as many outbreaks as meat and poultry, which is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The 2011 FDA Food Safety Modernization Act gave the agency more authority to conduct frequent inspections of food processing plants, particularly higher-risk ones. But the agency has not finalized its regulations and Congress has not approved adequate funds to bring the reform law into full effect, according to the CSPI.
The report identified some of the worst outbreaks in the 10-year period:
- One was associated with Salmonella Heidelberg-contaminated chicken from Foster Farms. In March 2013, the CDC documented cases of 134 people in 13 states who were sickened and 33 who required hospitalization for illnesses from Foster Farms chicken. In October 2013, Foster Farms was implicated a second for a similar outbreak that sickened 481 people in 25 states.
- Another came from pasteurized milk served in the California State Prisons in May 2006. The mil was contaminated and resulted in 1,644 inmates getting sick in the largest single-source outbreak.
- Salmonella Typhimurium contaminated jalapeño, Serrano and other pepper products in April 2008 sickened over 1,500 people in 42 states. Two died and 308 required hospitalization.
- In 2011, Listeria-contaminated cantaloupe from Colorado-based Jensen Farms led to the most deadly foodborne outbreak. The cantaloupe sickened 148 people in 28 states, and 21 percent of those taken ill died.
One other area the researchers found need for inspectors to address as an urgent public health risk was unpasteurized dairy products, like queso fresco and raw milk. The report notes that only 1 percent of Americans drink unpasteurized milk. However, their analysis showed that 70 percent of the outbreaks associated with milk came from unpasteurized milk. They strongly emphasized that consumers should avoid raw milk.
The decline in recent foodborne illness reporting needs further analysis to determine if the situation is still as bad as it was or food safety has improved. It is especially important to those who are more likely to frequent restaurants than cook at home.
By Dyanne Weiss