The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday infections caused by Campylobacter, Yersinia, Cyclospora, Shiga toxin-producing E. coli, and Vibrio increased in 2019 compared to 2016-2018, with progress in reducing Salmonella, Shigella, and Listeria infections stalled.
“This latest CDC data makes clear that the status quo is not working,” said Thomas Gremillion, director of food policy for the Consumer Federation of America. “The food industry can do much better, particularly when it comes to meat and poultry.”
A CDC report, based on preliminary data, emphasizes the role of chicken as an ongoing source of disease. Campylobacter, usually associated with eating chicken, remained the most commonly reported pathogen associated with foodborne illness in 2019. The rate of Campylobacter infection increased by 13 percent.
Last year, the CDC recommended action to “target Campylobacter contamination in chicken.” The recommendation was issued shortly after USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service or FSIS suspended testing to verify compliance with performance standards for Campylobacter in chicken, citing testing difficulties. Almost two years later, new performance standards have yet to be put in place by FSIS.
This year, the CDC report recommends targeting a specific Salmonella strain in chicken. The recommendation is based on data showing a significant decline in infections caused by the Salmonella strain Typhimurium. The decline reflects widespread vaccination of chicken flocks against the Typhimurium strain, according to the CDC. CDC’s report cites the experience of the United Kingdom as evidence that similarly targeted efforts to reduce Salmonella Enteriditis infections, the most common Salmonella infections in humans, could pay off, too.
However, FSIS officials have said that they won’t pursue any specific Salmonella strain reduction strategies, even though for decades poultry farmers have targeted specific Salmonella strains that cause illness in animals. On a stakeholder call to present the main findings of the CDC report, a FSIS official repeated a critique of these strategies previously expressed by the FSIS head, Under Secretary Mindy Brashears: regulators should focus on targeting specific virulence factors in Salmonella, rather than particular strains.
“The problem with that approach,” said Gremillion, “is that research identifying Salmonella virulence factors is still in its infancy. We know now, based on evidence that includes successful regulation in lots of other countries, that going on the farm and searching for particular Salmonella serotypes that make people sick – not just chickens – can really benefit public health.”
Compared to the baseline period, CDC’s preliminary data from 2019 also show a 153 percent increase in foodborne illnesses caused by Yersinia enterocolitica, a bacteria associated with pork. Pork is also estimated to cause more than 10 percent of salmonellosis cases. CFA has raised concerns that recently adopted hog slaughter inspection reforms, which transfer many government inspector duties to company employees and eliminate line speed caps, could make food safety problems associated with pork worse.
Meat and poultry isn’t the only source of concern when it comes to foodborne illness, said Gremillion. The largest percentage increase in incidence rates was for Cyclospora, a parasite often associated with fresh produce. In the past, Cyclospora outbreaks have been linked to poor hygiene on farms, where workers may not have proper handwashing facilities, or even toilets.
“The giant uptick in Cyclospora illnesses points to a continued need for improving farmworker conditions and training,” he said. “There are some innovative strategies underway, such as the Equitable Food Initiative, which trains and support farms to create food safety culture, but a lot of these problems are deeply entrenched and will require far reaching reforms.”
Early evidence from the covid-19 crisis suggests that many victims of foodborne illness are suffering in silence, he said. CDC officials have said that state public health departments have collected far fewer samples from foodborne illness victims, many of whom have likely sought to avoid seeking treatment, at least in person.