UF experts seek to improve data on food-borne illnesses
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Two new reports question the accuracy of federal food-borne illness reports and recommend systemic changes to the country’s food safety system, according to University of Florida experts who were involved in the studies.
In an article released online today in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides new estimates of overall incidence of food-borne disease in the U.S. Using new methodology, researchers revised projected incidence estimates downward from 76 million to 47.8 million cases of illness per year. The previous estimates have been used to bolster food safety regulations during the last 11 years.
“The new estimates were done using much better methods, but because of these changes, figures used in the past cannot be compared with the new data,” said Dr. Glenn Morris, director of the UF Emerging Pathogens Institute, who wrote a commentary about the issue for the CDC journal. “Things are not getting better, but they’re not getting worse either.”
New estimates by the CDC show about 90 percent of estimated illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths were due to seven pathogens: Salmonella, norovirus, Campylobacter, Toxoplasma, E.coli O157, Listeria and Clostridium perfringens. Salmonella was the leading cause of estimated hospitalizations and deaths, responsible for about 28 percent of deaths and 35 percent of hospitalizations due to known pathogens transmitted by food.
Morris also joined two other UF faculty members — Martha Rhodes Roberts and Douglas Archer — who were among 12 national experts to examine the policies of the Food and Drug Administration and their affiliated agencies tasked with food security.
The committee’s findings were released this fall in a 576-page report, “Enhancing Food Safety: The Role of the Food and Drug Administration,” issued by the Institute of Medicine of the National Research Council, where these recommendations are outlined. They write that the United States needs to adopt a risk-based decision-making approach to food safety and that there is a need to create a data, surveillance, and research infrastructure that will provide the information needed to adequately build a risk-based regulatory system. As part of this process, the federal government, the committee recommends, should establish a central clearinghouse for data and other scientific information collected on food- borne illnesses, such as Salmonella and Escherichia coli.
“A local network would give us a large cadre of professionals that can help the federal government track food-borne illness with more scrutiny and allow increased food inspections,” said Roberts, special assistant to the dean for research for UF’s Institute for Food and Agricultural Sciences. “Not only could our domestic production be more secure but so could vast amounts of food being imported as well. The changes may not be overnight, but the FDA needs to step back and reassess how they are protecting our food supply.”