Recent Influx of Foodborne Illness Due to Imported Food

With each passing day, new technologies allow people to communicate and visit with foreign countries as if they were just down the street. As a result, the average person has adapted a broader and more global outlook than those of decades past. Inevitably, that expanded outlook has caused America’s food supply to become more global as well. As our tastes for foreign cuisine becomes more eclectic, we venture to exotic parts of the world in search of food that will quench our growing palate. However, our expanding global food supply has witnessed a disturbing trend. Foodborne disease outbreaks caused by imported food appeared to rise in 2009 and 2010, and nearly half of the outbreaks implicated foods imported from areas which previously had not been associated with outbreaks.

In response to the influx of adverse reports that were submitted to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) Foodborne Disease Outbreak Surveillance System, officials conducted an investigation. Their review consisted of implicated foods that were imported to the United States between 2005 and 2010.

According to their findings, 39 outbreaks and 2,348 illnesses were linked to imported food from 15 countries. Of those outbreaks, 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). Subsequently, 45 percent of the imported foods causing outbreaks came from areas within Asia.

These findings were included in a report that was issued at a recent International Conference on Emerging Infectious Diseases. Though disturbing, officials are not sure if this influx represents a growing trend. “It’s 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, Ph.D., an epidemiologist in CDC’s Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases and the lead author.

Much of this may be attributed to America’s growing palate for foreign foods. Our importing has witnessed a steady increase over the years. According to a report by the Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (ERS), U.S. food imports grew from $41 billion in 1998 to $78 billion in 2007. The report also acknowledged that as much as 85 percent of America’s seafood is imported. Depending on the time of year, reports suggest that as much as 60 percent of our fresh produce comes from imports. Unfortunately, most of the food responsible for such outbreaks was imported.

“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,” 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.”

Much has been done in response to the recent influx of foodborne disease outbreaks. In hopes to reduce this problem, researchers have begun looking into what foods are most commonly associated with outbreaks and where they are coming from. According to Gould, “Knowing more about what is making people sick, will help focus prevention efforts on those foods that pose a higher risk of causing illness.”

At the forefront of these efforts, is the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Subsequently, the FDA has increased efforts to conduct environmental assessments that will hopefully determine the causes of each particular outbreak. Perhaps even more beneficial, is the recently enacted FDA Food Safety Modernization Act. This act provides a specific prevention based food safety system that covers food from all over the world.

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