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2011 Estimates of Foodborne Illness in the United States

CDC estimates that each year roughly 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) gets sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases.

Chart: Top pathogens contributing to domestically acquired foodborne illnesses and deaths, 2000 to 2008. Norovirus: Illnesses 58%; Deaths 11%. Salmonella, nontyphoidal: Illnesses: 11%; Deaths 28%. Clostridium perfringens: Illnesses: 10%. Campylobacter spp.: Illnesses: 9%; Deaths 6%. Staphylococcus aureus: Illnesses: 3%. Toxoplasma gondii: Deaths: 24%. Listeria monocytogenes: Deaths: 19%. .The 2011 estimates provide the most accurate picture yet of which foodborne bacteria, viruses, microbes ("pathogens") are causing the most illnesses in the United States, as well as estimating the number of foodborne illnesses without a known cause.

What were the main findings of the study?

Foodborne diseases are an important public health burden in the United States. First, we estimate that 31 of the most important known agents of foodborne disease found in foods consumed in the United States each year cause 9.4 million illnesses, 55,961 hospitalizations, and 1,351 deaths.

Second, not all agents of foodborne disease are known or can be counted as a "known agent of foodborne disease." These other agents, which we call "unspecified agents," include:

  • known agents with insufficient data to estimate the agent-specific burden;
  • known agents not yet recognized as causing foodborne illness;
  • microbes, chemicals, or other substances known to be in food whose ability to cause illness is unproven; and
  • agents not yet described.

As a group, we estimate that these unspecified agents in food consumed in the United States, cause an additional 38.4 million gastroenteritis illnesses, 71,878 hospitalizations, and 1,686 deaths each year.

After combining the estimates for the major known pathogens and the unspecified agents, the overall annual estimate of the total burden of disease due to contaminated food consumed in the United States is 47.8 million illnesses, 127,839 hospitalizations, and 3,037 deaths.

What are the leading causes of foodborne deaths, hospitalizations, and illnesses?

Among the 31 known foodborne pathogens:

  • Nontyphoidal Salmonella, Toxoplasma, Listeria, and norovirus caused the most deaths;
  • Nontyphoidal Salmonella, norovirus, Campylobacter, and Toxoplasma caused the most hospitalizations; and
  • Norovirus caused the most illnesses. Although norovirus usually causes a mild illness, norovirus is a leading cause of foodborne deaths because it affects so many people.

What can consumers do to protect themselves from foodborne illness?

A few simple precautions can reduce the risk of foodborne diseases:

  • CLEAN: Wash your hands with soap and water before preparing food. Wash cutting boards, dishes, utensils (including knives), and counter tops with hot, soapy water after preparing each food item and before going on to the next food. Wash produce. Rinse fresh fruits and vegetables in running tap water to remove visible dirt and grime. Remove and discard the outermost leaves of a head of lettuce or cabbage. Because bacteria can grow well on the cut surface of fruit or vegetable, be careful not to contaminate these foods while slicing them up on the cutting board, and avoid leaving cut produce at room temperature for many hours. Don't be a source of foodborne illness yourself. Avoid preparing food for others if you yourself have a diarrheal illness. Changing a baby's diaper while preparing food is a bad idea that can easily spread illness.
  • SEPARATE: Don't cross-contaminate one food with another. Avoid cross-contaminating foods by washing hands, utensils, and cutting boards after they have been in contact with raw meat or poultry and before they touch another food. Put cooked meat on a clean platter, rather back on one that held the raw meat.
  • COOK: meat, poultry and eggs thoroughly. Using a thermometer to measure the internal temperature of meat is a good way to be sure that it is cooked sufficiently to kill bacteria. For example, ground beef should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160o F. Eggs should be cooked until the yolk is firm.
  • CHILL: Refrigerate leftovers promptly. Bacteria can grow quickly at room temperature, so refrigerate leftover foods if they are not going to be eaten within 4 hours. Large volumes of food will cool more quickly if they are divided into several shallow containers for refrigeration.
  • REPORT: Report suspected foodborne illnesses to your local health department. The local public health department is an important part of the food safety system. Often calls from concerned citizens are how outbreaks are first detected. If a public health official contacts you to find out more about an illness you had, your cooperation is important. In public health investigations, it can be as important to talk to healthy people as to ill people. Your cooperation may be needed even if you are not ill.

For more information on preventing foodborne illnesses, please visit FoodSafety.gov, the federal gateway for food safety information.

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