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Foodborne Illnesses From Imports Rise in US

Of the 39 reported outbreaks in the latest six-year period, seafood accounted for nearly half.
Of the 39 reported outbreaks in the latest six-year period, seafood accounted for nearly half.

Imported food is making Americans sick more often than before, according to new research from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That increase comes as the U.S. food supply is growing more dependent on foreign food sources.

The number of food poisoning outbreaks linked to imported food per year has more than doubled, to 6.5 in 2005-2010, up from 2.7 per year in 1998-2004, according to CDC data presented at the International Conference on Emerging Infectious Diseases in Atlanta, Georgia.

Foodborne disease outbreaks linked to imports, 2005-2010

  • Total outbreaks:
    39 Food implicated:
    Fish:17 Spices:6
  • Region of origin: Asia:16 Latin America:11
  • Source: Foodborne disease outbreaks associated with food imported into the United States, 2005-2010. L. Gould, D. Morse, R.V. Tauxe; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, GA, USA.

  • Total value of US food imports:
    2010: $86.1 billion
    2000: $42.7 billion

  • Source: US Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service

Of the 39 reported outbreaks in the latest six-year period, seafood accounted for nearly half. Spices were the next most common source. Most of the outbreaks involved food imports from Asia, with products from Latin America the number-two source.

“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,” says CDC epidemiologist Hannah Gould, Ph.D., the lead author of the study.

The study notes that 16 percent of the foods eaten in the United States are imported, including more than 80 percent of seafood. The nation's food imports are growing at a rate of 10 percent a year, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The figures are not a big surprise to Erik Olson, director of food programs at the nonprofit Pew Health Group.

"The Food and Drug Administration is really only checking about 2 percent of the food that's imported into the U.S.," Olson says, "so a lot can go unchecked and problems may not be found."

Still, imports account for only a small fraction of all the foodborne disease outbreaks in the United States each year.

"The CDC is talking about somewhere north of a dozen outbreaks, when there are maybe a thousand or 1200 outbreaks annually from all sources," says Gavin Gibbons, spokesman for the National Fisheries Insititute, an industry trade group. "So, FDA appears to be doing a pretty good job."

New legislation aims to increase inspections and improve safety at foreign food manufacturing facilities.

New FDA rules to implement these changes are overdue, says Pew's Erik Olson, but he notes the agency may not get the funds it needs to follow through.

"Our concern is that, with all 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."

FDA spokesman Doug Kares says the agency is working on a number of food safety rules that all work together and hopes to release them all as soon as possible.