State and local health investigators did a better job figuring out what caused food-borne illness in 2008 than during any year in a decade, yet still solved less than half of the outbreaks, according to a new federal report published Thursday.
The report on surveillance of food-borne disease outbreaks, compiled by researchers at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, shows that health departments were able to identify the food that sickened people in 481 of the 1,034 cases and the specific disease agent in 479 cases, or a bit better than 46 percent.
An outbreak is defined as two or more similar illnesses that result from eating the same food contaminated with things like salmonella, E coli and norovirus. Officials note that only a fraction of such illnesses are reported to investigators each year, and not all of those outbreaks are shared with the CDC surveillance system.
According to the CDC's 2008 summary, the reported outbreaks made more than 23,000 people ill. At least 22 people died and at least 1,276 were hospitalized.
But the health agency says food pathogens actually make about 48 million Americans sick every year, put 128,000 in the hospital and kill around 3,000.
Although the solution rates for food-disease detectives were modest in the latest assessment, they're still a solid improvement from early in the decade.
A Scripps Howard News Service investigation published in 2006, which looked at nearly 6,400 outbreaks between 2000 and 2004, found that only about 36 percent of investigations revealed the cause of illness.
The Scripps review and a report card on state food safety investigations published earlier this year by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest both noted that solution rates for food illness vary widely from state to state, largely because of differences in the lab and human resources they commit to the job.
According to CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal, the previous peak for solving disease outbreaks since 1998 came in 2001, when 44 percent were assigned a cause; the lowest solution rate came in 2007, 34 percent. The most outbreaks reported to CDC were just over 1,400 in 2000.
"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," DeWaal said.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, an overall push to improve homeland security strengthened state and local health department labs, communications and other infrastructure, public health advocates say. They note recent budget cuts and layoffs negated many of those gains.
CPSI and others say they hope food safety laws updated earlier this year will give states better disease-surveillance tools and improve coordination of federal, state and local surveillance systems.
Next year, the law requires federal officials to establish five state health departments as regional centers of excellence. The centers would be able to offer resources to neighboring states during widespread food illness outbreaks.
(Contact Lee Bowman at BowmanL@shns.com)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.scrippsnews.com)