New US research links foodborne disease outbreaks to food imports

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 15th March 2012

New research from the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention has found that foodborne disease outbreaks in the US caused by imported food appear to be on the rise.

The researchers found that nearly half of the outbreaks in 2009 and 2010 implicated foods imported from areas which previously had not been associated with outbreaks.

CDC’s researchers reviewed outbreaks reported to CDC’s Foodborne Disease Outbreak Surveillance System from 2005-2010 for implicated foods that were imported into the United States.

During that five-year period, 39 outbreaks and 2,348 illnesses were linked to imported food from 15 countries. Of those outbreaks, nearly half (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). Nearly 45 per cent of the imported foods causing outbreaks came from Asia.

The lead author of the study, CDC’s Dr Hannah Gould said, “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.

“We saw an increased number of outbreaks due to imported foods during recent years, and more types of foods from more countries causing outbreaks.”

According to a report by the Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (ERS), U.S. food imports grew from US$41 billion in 1998 to US$78 billion in 2007.  Much of that growth has occurred in fruit and vegetables, seafood and processed food products.

The report estimated that as much as 85 per cent of the seafood eaten in the United States is imported, and depending on the time of the year, up to 60 per cent of fresh produce is imported. ERS also estimated that about 16 per cent of all food eaten in the United States is imported. The types of food causing the outbreaks in this analysis aligned closely with the types of food that were most commonly imported.

Dr Gould said that the findings likely underestimate the true number of outbreaks due to imported foods as the origin of many foods causing outbreaks is either not known or not reported.