Every year, 3,000 Americans die from foodborne illnesses. A recent article in On Earth magazine used the story of Paul Schwarz, a 92-year-old man who died after eating a piece of cantaloupe tainted with Listeria monocytogenes, to describe how the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is too underfunded and understaffed to ensure food safety. The FDA is responsible for inspecting 420,000 facilities, yet it has only about 1,300 full-time employees who inspect food. A 2011 Department of Health and Human Services Inspector General’s report reveals that the FDA relied on private auditors, including ones hired by the food industry, to conduct 59 percent of its food inspections in 2009. The only time the FDA inspected the 20-year-old farm responsible for the Listeria outbreak was after the outbreak.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), one in six Americans (or 48 million people) contract a foodborne illness every year, and 128,000 people become hospitalized and 3,000 die. The CDC tracks 31 known foodborne pathogens, including Listeria, which is responsible for the third highest fatalities of the known pathogens. Salmonella takes the top spot for causing the most hospitalizations and deaths of the known pathogens, accounting for 35 percent of the hospitalizations and 28 percent of the deaths in the group. The 31 known pathogens account for a little less than half (44 percent) of all foodborne hospitalizations and deaths. Unspecified agents account for the rest.
Since 1995, the Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network (FoodNet) has been monitoring foodborne illnesses. FoodNet is a multi-state, multi-level collaborative network. It began tracking common pathogens, including Salmonella, Listeria, and E. Coli, in 1996. In 2011 FoodNet released a report showing trends in foodborne illnesses between 1996 and 2012. It reveals that while many foodborne illnesses have decreased, almost all fall short of reduction goals, especially Salmonella, whose occurrences have remained steady since FoodNet started tracking pathogens.
One of the crucial questions the CDC is trying to answer is how pathogens spread among animals. Many pathogens are zoonotic, or passed from animals to humans, and knowing how they spread can help food producers better understand how to contain disease; it can also help food safety organizations, such as the FDA, create new preventative regulations. But as the On Earth article notes, the FDA is going to need more manpower and resources to enforce its policies. Giving the FDA what it needs is one of the first steps in preventing more of these tragedies from occurring.