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Study: Imported Food Increasingly Causing US Illness

Imported food is making Americans sick more frequently than ever, according to new research from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC.  The increase in illness comes as the U.S. increases its consumption of food from other countries.

The study looked at disease outbreaks linked to imported food between 2005 and 2010.  It found that the rate of outbreaks had more than doubled, to 6.5 per year, compared with an earlier study.

Food from Asia was the leading source of the outbreaks, followed by Latin America.

According to CDC spokeswoman Lola Russel, one category of food stood out. "Overall, there were 17 outbreaks related to fish, and they were the most common source of the implicated foodborne disease outbreaks that we found, followed by spices," she said

"It's really not a surprise when we have this confluence of events with a lot of imports and very little checking," said Erik Olson, Deputy Director of Food Programs at the Pew Health Group, a nonprofit research group that seeks to prevent health risks.  He notes that U.S. food imports have grown steadily in recent years, making up about 15 percent of the nation's food supply, and 80 percent of its seafood.

Meanwhile, Olson says, the Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, inspects only about 2 percent of imported food.

But imports account for only a small fraction of all the foodborne disease outbreaks in the United States each year, says Gavin Gibbons, spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute, an industry trade group.

"The CDC is talking about somewhere north of a dozen outbreaks, when there are maybe 1,000 or 1,200 outbreaks annually from all sources.  So the FDA appears to be doing a pretty good job," Gibbons said.

New U.S. legislation seeks to increase inspections and improve safety at foreign food manufacturing facilities.

Olson says new FDA rules to implement these changes are overdue.  And he notes that the agency might not receive the funds it needs to follow through.

"Our concern is that with all of the new requirements for imports and all the new protections that are envisioned that unless FDA gets a bump-up in resources, it's going to be very hard -- if not impossible -- for the agency to do its job," Olson said.

An FDA spokesman says the agency is working on several food safety rules that will work together and that the FDA plans to release them all as soon as possible.

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