FSMA Featured Article

Study Says Fresh Produce Remains Leading Cause of Outbreaks

December 03, 2015

A new study from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has revealed that fresh produce items like cilantro, cucumbers, cantaloupes, and peppers that are often eaten raw cause more food borne illness than any other single category of food, which has been the case for some time. This knowledge was a leading factor in the establishment of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).


The nonprofit food safety and nutrition watchdog group reviewed 10 years of outbreak data to determine which foods are most often linked to outbreaks of food borne disease and identify trends in illnesses. Over the period studied, fresh produce caused 629 outbreaks and almost 20,000 illnesses.

Of course, the CSPI said that this information shouldn’t dissuade folks from eating fresh fruits and vegetables. While the number of outbreaks and illnesses is large, on a pound-for-pound basis fresh produce is safer than many other foods.

“You are twice as likely to get sick from eating a serving of chicken as from eating a serving of vegetables,” said David Plunkett, co-author of the report and Senior Attorney, Food Safety, CSPI. “The data support improving the safety of our produce supply but don’t support eating less fruits and vegetables, which provide valuable nutrients.”

Over the period studied there were 193,754 illnesses reported from 9,626 outbreaks. An outbreak is defined as two or more cases of a similar illness caused by the same food source. Out of the total number of reported outbreaks, the CDC was able to identify both the food source and contaminant in less than 40 percent. CSPI only reviewed those 3,485 solved outbreaks.

Image via Pixabay

CSPI found that seafood is the second leading cause of outbreaks, but because the number of people sickened in any one outbreak is small, it caused fewer illnesses than most foods. Measured on a pound-for-pound basis, however, seafood remains the leading cause of food borne illness. Poultry caused more outbreaks and illnesses than either beef or pork.

The study found the foodborne illness surveillance system is improving, but more needs to be done, Plunkett said. Illnesses caused by cilantro contaminated with the intestinal parasite Cyclospora illustrate the problem. It took three years of outbreaks before investigators found the source—cilantro grown in Mexican fields that were littered with toilet paper and human feces.

“Far too many outbreaks are not getting solved quickly or are going unsolved altogether, thereby forgoing opportunities to implement corrective measures,” Plunkett said. “We need a better surveillance system.”

Based on its review, CSPI recommends that Congress fund improvements to the surveillance system, including funding full implementation of FSMA.

The report is CSPI’s 17th Outbreak Alert.




Edited by Kyle Piscioniere

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