Did CDC food-borne illness estimate undercut food safety bill?

foodborne illness

Some think the timing of a CDC report revising food-borne illness cases was influenced by politics. Image: woodleywonderworks/Flickr

Food-borne illness doesn’t make as many Americans sick each year than was previously calculated by the Centers for Disease Control. The agency released a report this week that revised estimates of food-borne illness occurrences downward by nearly half. Some analysts suspect the timing of the report was political because of a major food safety bill that was killed in Congress.

The CDC food-borne illness study

A report released by the CDC on Dec. 15 estimated that 48 million cases of food-borne illness occur in the U.S. every year. The report published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, as Congress debated the food safety bill, also said about 128,000 people are hospitalized and 3,000 die from eating tainted food. Since 1999, the official CDC food-borne illness estimate was 76 million cases, 350,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths. In both studies, the CDC used numbers from lab-confirmed food-borne illness cases in 10 states to extrapolate national estimates. Telephone surveys were also used. In the report the CDC emphasized that the lower numbers don’t mean there is less of a problem.

Food-borne illness report full of unknowns

Food safety experts said the CDC’s new food-borne illness numbers show how much is still not known about the problem. The report said about 38 million cases — four-fifths of the total estimate — are caused by “unspecified agents.” Unspecified agents could be unknown pathogens or chemicals used in food processing yet to be identified as harmful. The CDC admitted that a lot of guesswork supplemented the science. The estimate of 48 million food-borne illnesses was median of a range from 29 million to 71 million. The CDC said it will get more specific about what types of pathogens, in what foods, can be attributed to those numbers in a report next year.

Food safety bill dies when omnibus killed

Some food safety experts think the CDC report on food-borne illness was timed to influence debate in Congress over the food safety bill. The food safety bill was part of the omnibus spending bill that was killed by Republicans in Congress Dec. 16. A doctor interviewed in Food Safety News questioned the timing and said the CDC submitted the report to Emerging Infectious Diseases about a year ago. The food safety bill would grant the Food and Drug Administration more authority to recall tainted food, quarantine geographical regions and investigate food manufacturer records. Democrats say they haven’t given up on the food safety bill, but Republicans vowed to block it.

Sources

Food Safety News

New York Times

The Hill

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