More illnesses being linked to imported foods

by Keith Nunes
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ATLANTA — Research conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that foodborne illness outbreaks associated with imported foods may be on the rise. The agency said outbreaks associated with imported foods appeared to rise in 2009 and 2010, and nearly half of the outbreaks implicated foods imported from areas that had not previously been associated with outbreaks.

“It’s too early to say if the recent numbers represent a trend, but C.D.C. officials are analyzing information from 2011 and will continue to monitor for these outbreaks in the future,” said Hannah Gould, Ph.D., an epidemiologist in C.D.C.’s Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases and the lead author of the study that was presented March 14 at the International Conference on Emerging Infectious Diseases that is taking place in Atlanta.

The researchers reviewed outbreaks reported to the C.D.C.’s Foodborne Disease Outbreak Surveillance System from 2005-2010 for implicated foods that were imported into the United States. During that five-year period, 39 outbreaks and 2,348 illnesses were linked to imported food from 15 countries. Of those outbreaks, nearly half (17) occurred in 2009 and 2010.

Overall, fish (17 outbreaks) were the most common source of implicated imported foodborne disease outbreaks, followed by spices (six outbreaks, including five from fresh or dried peppers). Nearly 45% of the imported foods causing outbreaks came from Asia.

“As our food supply becomes more global, people are eating foods from all over the world, potentially exposing them to germs from all corners of the world, too,” Dr. Gould said. “We saw an increased number of outbreaks due to imported foods during recent years, and more types of foods from more countries causing outbreaks.”

Dr. Gould warned that the findings likely underestimate the true number of outbreaks due to imported foods as the origin of many foods causing outbreaks is either not known or not reported.

“We need better — and more — information about what foods are causing outbreaks and where those foods are coming from,” Dr. Gould said. “Knowing more about what is making people sick, will help focus prevention efforts on those foods that pose a higher risk of causing illness.”

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