Sources of food borne illness ranked

by Keith Nunes
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GAINESVILLE, FLA. — Salmonella was cited as the leading cause of food borne illness in the United States, and poultry contaminated with Campylobacter was ranked as the No. 1 pathogen-food combination most likely to cause food borne illness, according to “Ranking the risks: The 10 pathogen-food combinations with the greatest burden on public health,” a study conducted by researchers at the University of Florida’s Emerging Pathogen Institute.

Claiming that Salmonella causes more than $3 billion in “disease burden annually,” the authors of the report recommended that the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture develop a joint Salmonella initiative that coordinates efforts to address contamination issues. In addition to poultry, the report said Salmonella contaminated produce, eggs and multi-ingredient foods all rank in the top 10 pathogen-food combinations that cause food borne illness.

Poultry contaminated with Campylobacter ranked No. 1 in pathogen-food combinations because the report said it is the source of more than 600,000 illnesses each year in the United States. The report questioned whether the new safety standards recently announced by the U.S.D.A. for young chickens and turkeys are sufficient and recommended tightening the standards over time.

“The number of hazards and scale of the food system make for a critical challenge for consumers and government alike,” said Michael Batz, lead author of the report and head of Food Safety Programs at the E.P.I. “Government agencies must work together to effectively target their efforts. If we don’t identify which pairs of foods and microbes present the greatest burden, we’ll waste time and resources and put even more people at risk.”

Five pathogens — Campylobacter, Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes, Toxoplasma and norovirus — result in $12.7 billion in annual economic loss. The economic burden takes into account the cost of medical care and lost productivity from employee sick days and the expense of complications and disabilities that may result from illness, according to the E.I.P.

“There are significant uncertainties in the data sources and model assumptions used to obtain our estimates, and therefore the estimates themselves,” the report stated. “Our analysis is constrained by these limitations. Our estimates should be regarded, therefore, as an important starting point in an ongoing process to improve our understanding of the very complex interactions among pathogens and foods in the U.S. food system.”

In addition to the Campylobacter-poultry combination, Toxoplasma-pork, Listeria-deli meats, Salmonella-poultry and Listeria-dairy products rounded out the top 5 pathogen-food combinations. The authors noted, “Toxoplasma gondii is not a ‘front page’ food-borne pathogen, but it is very important from a public health standpoint. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that food-borne toxoplasmosis causes 327 deaths annually, second only to Salmonella; this high rate of mortality drives this ranking in our cost of illness and QALY (Quality Adjusted Life Years) rankings. Although conventionally associated with handling of cats and kitty litter, the C.D.C. now estimates that 50% of toxoplasmosis is food-borne.”

The E.P.I. researchers suggested that people should use the report not as a top 10 list of foods to avoid, but as a reminder that many of the foods eaten every day may become contaminated. They also highlighted food safety practices consumers may use to reduce the risk of food borne illness.

A copy of the full report may be obtained by visiting the E.P.I.’s web site at

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