Leafy greens

Leafy greens cause most foodborne illnesses in US

A report published by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that leafy green vegetables are responsible for more foodborne illnesses than any other food. However, meat and poultry cause more deaths.

Almost half (46%) of illnesses were traced back to produce, including fruits and nuts. Twenty-two percent were due to consuming leafy vegetables such as kale or spinach. Dairy products were responsible for 14% of illnesses, fruits and nuts for 12%, and poultry for 10%.

Meat — particularly poultry — was responsible for the most deaths, with 43% of all deaths estimated to have come from land animals. Nineteen percent of deaths were due to poultry alone and mostly from Listeria or Salmonella.

Two years ago, the CDC published estimates on the number of foodborne illnesses acquired in the United States, including the number caused by each of the major pathogens. According to that report, about 48 million people — or one in six in the United States each year — get food poisoning. More than 9 million of those cases are caused by one of the major pathogens tracked by the CDC.

This is the first time the CDC has tried to evaluate the actual food sources of foodborne illnesses. The analysis is based on data from all outbreaks since 1998, the first year authorities started filing information on ingredients.

Although the report doesn’t pinpoint where along the production chain food gets contaminated, the CDC says its previous research found most infections are caused by norovirus that is spread by sick food handlers. In a report on foodborne norovirus outbreaks during 2001 to 2008, the CDC found over 80% of outbreaks were associated with food prepared in commercial settings like restaurants, delis, or catering businesses.

Health officials hope the timing of the report brings more attention to needed changes in how food is handled and processed in the US. The CDC’s report follows the FDA’s new food safety rule proposals, released earlier this month for public commentary. It will be holding a public meeting on the rules at the end of February. The draft proposals — the first in 70 years — will allow the FDA to take on a preventative rather than reactive role in dealing with food contamination.

One of the rules focuses specifically on produce, which the CDC has now found is the main cause of foodborne illness in the US. The FDA proposal will require strict standards for growing, harvesting, packing and holding fruits and vegetables as well as increase sanitation for irrigating fields and washing produce and strengthen rules for maintaining worker hygiene. It will also increase surveillance for materials used in soils like fertilizers and manure, provide better management of animals that enter crop fields, and improve cleanliness of processing equipment.

Read the report here