Ten years worth of data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and CSPI’s own records database was used to determine how well all 50 states and the District of Columbia detect, investigate and report outbreaks.
The study comes on the heels of widespread salmonella contamination in eggs last summer and reveals what authors call a “troubling trend.”
Solved outbreaks with an identified pathogen culprit and infected food product declined during the 10-year data period, reaching a low of 34 percent of all known cases in 2007, the last year for which information was available.
“States that aggressively investigate outbreaks and report them to the CDC can help nail down the foods that are responsible for making people sick,” said CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal in a statement. “But when states aren’t detecting outbreaks, interviewing victims, identifying suspect food sources, or connecting with federal officials, outbreaks can grow larger and more frequent, putting more people at risk.”
Seven states — Oregon, Minnesota, Florida, Hawaii, Maryland, Washington and Wyoming — received A grades for their high-reporting rates. On average, these states reported 8 to 9 outbreaks per million residents, while states with failing grades reported just one outbreak per million residents. CSPI officials said that more known outbreaks reflects a higher reporting standard.
But not all agree with that methodology.
“I like to think less people are getting sick (in Nevada),” said John Roberts, academia chair of the Nevada Food Safety Task Force.
Roberts also provides food safety certification training for restaurant managers.
He said the training required by Washoe County health officials is longer and more extensive in scope than is generally seen elsewhere in the United States.
Nevada is not widely known as a national leader in food production, and this might explain why outbreaks are less commonly reported in the state compared with national averages, health officials said.
But that doesn’t mean the state is immune, either.
Roberts said outbreaks of the norovirus — also referred to as the Norwalk virus or “cruise ship” virus in modern parlance–are common. Indeed, the CDC reports that the norovirus is highly contagious and the leading cause of foodborne illness outbreaks in the country. It is transmitted from person to person through contaminated food or water and symptoms typically manifest as vomiting and diarrhea. When people speak of food poisoning or stomach flu, norovirus is almost certainly the cause.
An outbreak of the norovirus afflicted about 1,000 guests and employees at the Reno Hilton in 1996, resulting in a $25 million lawsuit judgment later thrown out by the state Supreme Court.
In 2003, there were four confirmed cases of the norovirus in guests at the Atlantis Casino Resort Spa in Reno, though no source of the outbreak was found.
E. coli also is frequently responsible for foodborne illnesses.
In the early 1990s, Jack in the Box saw an outbreak of the bacteria in its fast food restaurants in several states. One culture-confirmed case was reported in Nevada, resulting in 58 infections and nine hospitalizations.
Limiting the number of outbreaks requires diligence from the public.
The CSPI advises consumers to notify their local health department if they have contracted a foodborne illness.
Roberts said people need to be aware of potential health hazards when eating out.
Reviewing restaurant health inspection reports and eyeing the cleanliness of bathrooms, kitchens and dining areas is key to staying healthy.
Roberts also recommends frequent hand washing to limit the transmission of viruses and bacteria.
“The devil is in the details,” he said.