Blog Post

What to know about current foodborne illness outbreaks

April 27, 2015

    Sam Bernstein, Daily Briefing

    Blue Bell Ice Cream is suspending all of its manufacturing operations starting today, following an outbreak of listeria linked to its products that has sickened 10 and killed three. But the Blue Bell outbreak is only the latest in a series of foodborne illness outbreaks in the news.

    Listeria outbreaks in multiple states

    Listeria is a type of bacteria found in soil and water that can be carried by animals. It is commonly found in unpasteurized cheese and milk, as well as processed meats. Listeria can be particularly difficult to eradicate because it grows very well in cold temperatures.

    Most people exposed to Listeria do not become ill. However, exposure to the bacteria can lead to listeriosis; people with compromised immune systems, elderly individuals, and pregnant women are most at risk. Early symptoms of infection include fever, muscle aches, and gastrointestinal symptoms.

    Food illness outbreaks are more mysterious than ever

    As of last week, Blue Bell announced that it is recalling all of its products and hitting "reset" on its manufacturing process.

    In addition to Blue Bell, the Sabra Dipping Company also recalled 30,000 cases of its hummus after random testing at a retail location came up positive for listeria. The potentially tainted hummus has an expiration date of either May 11 or May 15. Additional details about which packages are affected by the recall can be found on the FDA's website.

    Botulism outbreak in Ohio

    CDC is also monitoring an outbreak of botulism linked to a church potluck in Ohio last week. Botulism is a rare and serious illness—only about 145 cases are reported in the United States each year. Symptoms of infection include blurred vision, drooping eyelids, slurred speech, and muscle weakness.

    So far, 26 people have become ill, and one woman has died. Ohio health officials are working to identify the pre-packaged foods at the potluck that may have been responsible for the outbreak. In the interim, CDC has flown botulism antitoxin to Ohio to treat those who have become ill.

    A broader issue?

    2015 is far from the first year when foodborne illnesses made national headlines.

    In 2010, thousands were sickened by peanut butter and eggs tainted by salmonella. In response, Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act, which shifted the responsibility of ensuring food safety from the overburdened FDA to manufactures. It also gave FDA more tools to track outbreaks and sanction companies that do not meet safety standards.

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    But according to the New York Times, Congress did not give FDA enough money to enforce the law—which is scheduled to go into effect later this year. Overall, the agency needed about $580 million from 2011 to 2015 to implement the changes, but Congress has appropriated less than half of that. FDA had hoped to use manufacturers fees to help pay for the changes, but industry was able to thwart those efforts.

    Even without additional funding, many requirements of the Food Safety Modernization Act will go into effect later this year. Notably, manufactures will be required to test for bacteria such as listeria themselves, rather than relying on random checks by FDA.

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    Some companies, like Blue Bell, already test for listeria. However, the company now says it will increase its testing by 800%. Consumers who are generally worried about foodborne illness can take steps to limit their exposure, such as thoroughly washing produce and actively monitoring the FDA's recall website.  

    An estimated 48 million Americans contract a foodborne illness each year.

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