Yesterday, the CDC released its annual preliminary FoodNet report on the incidence of food-borne diseases. The agency concluded that reported food-borne illnesses in the United States, which had decreased annually until 2004, has plateaued. In fact, illnesses due to Cryptosporidium actually increased by 44% in 2007.
In 1999, researchers at CDC published their estimates of the overall incidence of food-borne disease in the US population. They examined available statistics on reported illnesses and calculated (based on the proportion of illness that are actually reported) that the annual toll of food-borne diseases was approximately 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths.
The 76 million illnesses, when divided by the US population at the time of the study of approximately 270 million, equated to about 28% of the population – more than one person in four.
The United States is not alone in experiencing this high rate of food-borne disease. As I pointed out last fall in Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics, both Canada and the UK suffer from similar levels of disease.
Even without knowing the true incidence of food-borne illness, consumers can often sense that there is something rotten in the food supply. A third of Australians surveyed by Food Standards Australia and New Zealand believed that they had suffered from food poisoning in the previous year.
New Zealanders are even more aware of their tummies. A survey of 3,500 New Zealanders, published last month in the New Zealand Weekend Herald, determined that 9% of those surveyed had experienced a bout of diarrhea or vomiting in the four weeks prior to the survey. That translates to 4.6 million bouts of illness a year – in a country of fewer than 4.3 million people. The New Zealand survey didn't distinguish between food-borne and water-borne disease.
It's easy to think of food-borne disease as a Third World phenomenon. But it's clearly just as prevalent in the "developed" world. And it will remain a serious problem until we retrace our steps back to that fork in the road and choose a better path to achieving a safer food and water supply.