Pamela A. MacLean
Worldwide the number of people who died from contaminated food and water doubled between 1999 and 2007, and people over 65 accounted for 83 percent of the deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
In the United States, illness from contaminated food imported from outside the country appears to be on the rise as well, the CDC reports. The most common sources were imported fish and spices, such as dried peppers. Nearly 45 percent of the outbreaks came from food imported from Asia, according to one of two reports on food contamination presented to the International Conference on Emerging Infectious diseases in Atlanta.
The CDC scientists found that deaths from gastroenteritis, an inflammation of the stomach and intestines that causes vomiting and diarrhea, increased from 7,000 to more than 17,000 per year for the period studied. Adults over 65 were the most common victims. And alarming five-fold increase, from 2,700 to 14,000 deaths per year were linked to a type of bacteria found in health care settings, known as C. difficile.
The Norovirus, responsible for 800 deaths annually, is highly contagious and is passed from person to person through contaminated food, water and surfaces. It is reported to cause 20 million illnesses a year.
Imported Food Illnesses in the US
Half the reported outbreaks of illness from imported foods coming to the U.S. were from areas not previously associated with contamination problems, according to the CDC research report. The CDC experts examined foodborne disease outbreaks for a five-year period from 2005 to 2010 and saw a rise in 2009 and 2010. They reported 39 outbreaks and 2,348 illnesses linked to foods imported from 15 countries. Of those cases, roughly half were in 2009-2010.
"It is too early to say if the recent numbers represent a trend, but CDC officials are analyzing information from 2011 and will continue to monitor for these outbreaks in the future," said Hannah Gould, an epidemiologist in CDC's Division of Foodborne Waterborne and Environmental Diseases.
Overall, fish were involved in 17 outbreaks and were the most common sources of imported diseases, followed by spices, with six outbreaks. Five of the six came from fresh or dried peppers, according to CDC. The CDC provides a public, online outbreak database, allowing people to search by state, year or type of illness and type of facility where the outbreak occurred. The latest year on the database is only 2009, however.
"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," Gould said. It is estimated that 85 percent of the seafood eaten in the U.S. is imported, and depending on the time of year, up to 60 percent of fresh produce is imported, the CDC states.
And the imports are big business.
The Dept. of agriculture's Economic Research Service says food imports grew from $41 billion in 1998 to $78 billion in 2007.
Even with these new numbers disease outbreaks, Gould warned the findings likely underestimate the true number of outbreaks due to imported food because it is not known or not reported.
"We need better -- and more -- information about what foods are causing outbreaks and where those foods are coming from," she said.