Watching What You Eat: Why Foodborne Illnesses are Rising
If you happened to order a Caesar salad in a restaurant recently, you may have been surprised to find a different type of green than the romaine you were expecting. Ahead of Thanksgiving, the Center for Disease Control (“CDC”) urged people in the U.S. and Canada to not eat romaine lettuce after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reported that 32 people in 11 states in the U.S. and 18 people in Ontario and Quebec became ill after eating romaine lettuce.
If you feel as if every few weeks you are hearing about a different food recall, you are not alone. This year alone, there have been 22 food-related outbreaks investigated by the CDC. Though this is the highest number of total investigations compared to the past 12 years, it is not necessarily because food has become unsafe. In fact, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb specifically addressed this issue, stating “I think what’s happening is that we have better technology than ever before to link outbreaks of human illness to a common pathogen.”
According to CNN, the CDC has the ability to do genomic testing on samples from infected patients as well as genetically link the identified pathogens in human illness to actual food sources. This is done using public health surveillance methods like PulseNet that can test and detect foodborne illnesses in individuals who are ill. However, per Gottlieb, the difficulty arises in the ability to trace an outbreak to a single distributor or grower “because we don’t have as good a technology as we would like in our supply chain.” Though days after the romaine lettuce outbreak, Gottlieb tweeted that it likely originated in California, a single grower was not named.
In the wake of these recalls, Gottlieb remains committed to finding a solution that could help resolve the issue of tracking and tracing the source of the outbreak. Specifically, as to the romaine lettuce E. coli outbreak, Gottlieb stated, “Were working with growers and distributors on labeling produce for location and harvest date and possibly other ways of informing consumers that the product is ‘post-surge’.” Adding, “One goal we’re seeking is to make this type of labeling the new standard rather than a short-term fix; as a way to improve [identification] and traceability in the system.”
Though these frequent food recalls can be inconvenient and somewhat disconcerting, it is comforting to know that the CDC and the FDA are committed to finding the sources of contamination as soon as possible. However, to avoid food-borne illness, make sure to follow all recommendations and throw away any potentially contaminated food.