What's Making Us Sick?

Buyer beware: The CDC says Illnesses from
imported food products are on the rise.

original article on takepart.com

dried spices

Outbreaks of foodborne illnesses from imported spices like dried chiles are on the rise, according to the Center for Disease Control. (Photo: Panoramic Images/Getty Images)

We can't make this stuff up. Yesterday we reported that the U.S. government is putting off plans to create five new centers to fight foodborne illness. Last month, we got word that the Microbiological Data Program, which tests fruits and vegetables for deadly bugs like E. coli, salmonella and listeria, was in jeopardy due to budget cuts. And yesterday afternoon, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) broke the news that foodborne disease outbreaks caused by imported food are on the rise. The top two culprits? Imported fish and spices.

According to the CDC, between 2005-2010, 39 outbreaks and 2,348 illnesses were linked to imported food from 15 countries. Of those, nearly half occurred in 2009 and 2010. Seafood was the most common source implicated, followed by imported spices (primarily fresh or dried peppers). The report also noted that nearly 45 percent of the imported foods causing outbreaks came from Asia.

Our food supply is indeed global in scale. Nearly 85 percent of the seafood we consume in the U.S. is imported, and our food imports have nearly doubled from $41 billion in 1998 to $78 billion in 2007.“As our food supply becomes more global, people are eating foods from all over the world, potentially exposing them to germs from all corners of the world too,” said Hanna Gould, a CDC epidemiologist and lead author of the report.

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While the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) often gets publicly pummeled for physically inspecting only 1-2 percent of imported foods, spokesman Sebastian Cianci says that those inspections are based on risk, and that 100 percent of the more than 10 million shipments of food to the U.S. every year are screened. The agency is also increasing the number of foreign inspections as well.

“We inspected about 600 food processing facilities last year and will double the number of inspections every year for the next five years, so that we are inspecting 19,200 by the last year,” says Cianci. It's a requirement under the Food Safety Modernization Act.

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The fact that spices were singled out as a source of foodborne illness wasn't a surprise to Ravin Donald, vice president of quality assurance for spice importer Frontier Natural Products Co-op.

“The sporadic occurrence of salmonella or E.coli in spices has been known for the last decade or so, and most of the companies that deal in spices have been aware of this for quite awhile,” Donald tells TakePart.

Concern over pathogens prompted the company to invest millions in steam sterilization units to treat herbs and spices after they've been harvested, dried and processed. The process won't destroy color or flavor and has only been refined in the last three to five years.

But just how can an eater be assured their food is safe?

“Consumers should approach safety the way they always have,” says Gould in NPR's The Salt. “Cook, separate, chill—follow prevention measures.”