Attribution of Foodborne Illness: Overview

Estimating the number of illnesses associated with specific food sources is called foodborne illness source attribution. These analyses are the logical extension of our prior analyses estimating the number, or burden, of foodborne illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths in the United States.

Determining the sources of foodborne illness is an important part of identifying opportunities to improve food safety. Having a better sense of the relationship between contaminated foods and illness supports food safety along the entire food production chain—from fields where food is grown to cutting boards in kitchens.

The web pages in this section provide background on why attribution is important to consumers and to those working to make our food safer. It will also describe the approaches, data and partnerships CDC is working to enhance.

Because food is complicated …

Mother and daughter with grocery cart

Visit any grocery store and you will see that there are hundreds of different foods. A person may eat many different types of food in a single meal. For scientists studying food sources responsible for illnesses, it would be simpler if we ate foods one at a time, like eating an apple by itself. But we often mix many different ingredients together from many types of foods and eat them together as one dish, such as an apple pie made with flour, spices, and sugar.

Just as a grocery store has different aisles and sections with related types of foods, individual foods can be categorized into groups. It is important to categorize foods in ways that are helpful to agencies that investigate outbreaks, regulate food safety, and inform consumers. Industries that produce foods also find this useful.

CDC and regulatory agencies group foods into categories, such as fish, beef, and leafy vegetables. Learn more about this food categorization scheme >

… attribution is challenging

For the vast majority of foodborne illnesses, we do not know what food is responsible. Outbreaks are an exception, because investigators can often link illnesses to the responsible foods. To improve our understanding of the food sources of illnesses that are not part of outbreaks, however, additional data and analyses are needed. Learn more about data sources and methods used for attribution >