The CDC Surveillance Report for Foodborne Disease Outbreaks from 2009 – 2005 was released in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report today. The numbers show that food poisoning outbreaks remain a serious health problem in this country, causing millions of illnesses every year. But what the raw numbers don’t reveal is how these largely preventable illnesses wreak havoc on individual lives and families.
During the time frame of the report, the CDC’s Foodborne Disease Outbreak Surveillance System received reports of 5,760 outbreaks that caused more than 100,000 illnesses, more than 5500 hospitalizations, and 145 deaths.
These outbreak illnesses are a small fraction of the actual number of food poisoning cases that occur every year. The government estimates that 48,000,000 Americans are sickened with food poisoning every year. Most people who contract a foodborne illness are not part of any outbreak. And most food poisoning cases are never solved or linked to a specific product or event. The CDC Surveillance Report puts it this way: “The majority of foodborne illnesses occur outside the context of a recognized outbreak.”
Norovirus was responsible for most food poisoning outbreaks, accounting for 38%. Salmonella was the most second-most common pathogen that caused illness, followed by Shiga toxin-producing E. coli, Campylobacter, Clostridium perfringens, scombroid toxin, and ciguatoxin. The report also stated what most of us know: that most outbreak-associated illnesses were linked to chicken, and that the pathogen-food pairs that sickened the most people were Salmonella in eggs, Salmonella in seeded vegetables, and Salmonella in chicken.
Food Safety Attorney Fred Pritzker Talks About His Clients
We asked food safety lawyer Fred Pritzker, whose firm underwrites Food Poisoning Bulletin, about these numbers. He has represented thousands of clients sickened by these pathogens over the years. He said, “The experiences of our clients prove that people who contract food poisoning can’t be reduced to mere numbers. Most people who get sick after eating contaminated food recover and their lives are relatively unaffected. But a large portion of these patients have their lives disrupted in horrible ways, and we help them with enormous medical bills and other financial issues.
“For instance, one of our clients, who was sickened in the Salmonella Adelaide outbreak linked to recalled precut melons, had to undergo surgery to repair an aortic aneurysm. Another client, a young child, needed brain surgery after a Salmonella infection caused bacterial meningitis. He ate chicken that was processed by Foster Farms. Another client, a 10-year-old girl, suffered severe kidney damage after visiting a farm for a Halloween event. She contracted an E. coli infection and developed HUS after petting cows at the farm. These patients and their families endured significant stress and pain just because they ate a particular food or went on a family outing.
“Food producers and processes, along with stores and restaurants, have a legal responsibility to sell food that won’t make people sick,” Fred added. “And venues that are open to the public, such as state fairs and the relatively new farm tourism industry, must ensure that their visitors aren’t exposed to pathogens. Our work not only helps our clients, but helps hold these entities responsible for the damage caused.”
“We take the time to get to know our clients,” Fred explained. “We spend time with our clients and their families and therefore understand how this illness affected them and what they need to help restore their lives to a more normal condition.”
CDC Surveillance Report States That A Small Number of Outbreaks Account for Most Serious Injuries and Deaths
The CDC Surveillance Report states that just 3% of these outbreaks were multistate, but caused 11% of the illnesses, 34% of the hospitalizations, and 54% of the deaths. The Pritzker Hageman law firm represented clients in virtually all of these outbreaks and often handled the cases with the largest verdicts and settlements.
“Our lawyers have years of expertise in food safety law,” Fred said. “Our clients learn that we understand the complicated science, including epidemiology, agriculture, transportation, medicine, and microbiology, in these food poisoning outbreaks, and that we can often find links between their illness and a responsible party that others can’t.
“And because most food poisoning illnesses are not linked to an outbreak, a patient has no idea whom they can sue. Advances in technology such as whole genome sequencing and traceback are changing that by linking more food poisoning cases to specific contaminated foods and venues than ever before. Our firm’s attorneys can tell a potential client if they have a case or not and what to expect if they sign with us.”
Surprising New Sources of Food Poisoning Identified
The CDC Surveillance Report also highlights a relatively new issue with pathogens: Salmonella and E. coli bacteria can survive food processing steps, and can remain viable in dry conditions. Recent outbreaks linked to raw flour and cereal surprised many people, since those products aren’t typically associated with food poisoning. The report also states that pathogens can contaminate large amounts of foods across complicated distribution chains; in other words, our food production system is part of the problem. One contaminated head of lettuce, for instance, can make thousands of bags of prepared salad unsafe to eat.
“This report proves that any food can be contaminated with pathogens at any time, at any point in the food production chain,” Fred said. “FDA and USDA safety standards and regulations exist for a reason. Anyone who sells food to or opens their business to the public, from the largest food processors down to family farms, must consider safety. When they don’t, families are affected in tragic ways and we are called in to help.”
The CDC Surveillance Report concludes that the ability of state and local health departments to investigate and report outbreaks should be strengthened. Foodborne illnesses will always be a part of life. But regulations such as the Food Safety Modernization Act and government action plans may be able to control pathogens and reduce outbreak numbers.
Pritzker Hageman, America’s food safety law firm, successfully helps and represents people hurt by adulterated foods in outbreaks throughout the United States. Its lawyers have won hundreds of millions of dollars for foodborne illness patients and their families, including the largest verdict in American history for a person harmed by E. coli and hemolytic uremic syndrome. The firm also publishes Food Poisoning Bulletin, a respected Google News source for food safety news and information. Pritzker Hageman lawyers are often interviewed as experts on the topic by major news outlets including the New York Times, CNN, and the Wall Street Journal.