Burden of Foodborne Illness: Overview
Surveillance systems and surveys provide vital information about the burden of foodborne illness in the United States, but they do not capture every illness. Because only a fraction of illnesses are diagnosed and reported, we need periodic assessments of the total burden of illness to set public health goals, allocate resources, and measure the economic impact of disease. Therefore, we estimate. We use the best data available and make reasonable adjustments—based on surveys, study results, and statistical methods—to account for shortcomings and missing pieces of information.
Foodborne illness estimates help us understand an important public health problem
CDC estimates 48 million people get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from foodborne diseases each year in the United States.
The 2011 estimates provide the most accurate picture yet of which foodborne pathogens (bacteria, viruses, and parasites) are causing the most illnesses in the United States, and also estimate the number of foodborne illnesses without a known cause. These estimates are the first comprehensive estimates since 1999, and are the first ever to estimate illnesses caused solely by foods eaten in the United States.
Trends tell us if foodborne illness infections are increasing or decreasing
Foodborne illness estimates give the most accurate count of illness at a specific point in time, but they do not show disease trends—whether illnesses are increasing or decreasing. Yet documenting trends is essential for monitoring how well we are doing in reducing foodborne illness.
Surveillance systems, such as the Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network (FoodNet), are better at showing disease trends. FoodNet conducts surveillance for several important enteric pathogens, accomplishing its work through active surveillance; surveys of laboratories, physicians, and the general population; and population-based epidemiologic studies.
Attribution of foodborne illness to sources tells us which foods are most important as causes of disease
By determining the sources of foodborne illness, we can identify opportunities to improve food safety. Contamination can occur anywhere along the food production chain—from fields where food is grown to cutting boards in kitchens. Attribution estimates can help in deciding what new prevention strategies are needed to safeguard our food.
Attributing illness to foods is a challenge for several reasons. There are thousands of different foods, and we eat many categories of food in a single meal. We do not know what food is responsible for the vast majority of foodborne illnesses. However, we gather data to help bridge some gaps. Data collected during foodborne outbreak investigations can be used in attribution analyses. Outbreak investigations provide direct links between illnesses and the foods responsible for them. Other data and analyses are also used for attribution analyses.