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Tainted Food A Common Cause Of Illness

Did something you ate make you sick this year? If so, you had plenty of company.

Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published new estimates of the toll foodborne illnesses take on Americans and the upshot is that 1 in 6 of us get hit by a bug from some sort of food in any given year.

The final tally of people made ill by food, which the public health gurus say is the most detailed since a 1999 estimate, looks like this:

  • 48 million sickened
  • 128,000 hospitalized
  • 3,000 died
  • Figuring out how many people get sick from food is pretty tricky, as it turns out. Most illnesses aren't reported to public health authorities, so there's a fair amount of educated guesswork involved.

    Among the 9.4 million or so annual illnesses that can be pinned on particular bugs, the top offenders are norovirus (58 percent), salmonella (11 percent) and Clostridium perfringens, (10 percent), according to one of the papers published in Emerging Infectious Diseases. Salmonella, for what it's worth, is the No. 1 known cause of hospitalizations and deaths, which helps explain why the contaminated egg recalls this year were such a big deal.

    The researchers can't pinpoint the cause of most foodborne illnesses, as another paper notes. There are about 38.4 million cases of illness resulting from unknown bugs, resulting in nearly 72,000 hospitalizations and about 1,700 deaths.

    The CDC researchers caution against historical comparisons because their methods differed from those used in the 1999. But, in case you wanted to know, back then the CDC put the annual toll at 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths.

    Don't swear off eating anything but boiled gruel just yet. An editorial accompanying the two papers that lay out the latest estimates says that except for illnesses caused by bacteria in the group Vibrio, which are found frequently in seafood,  "things don’t seem to be getting worse" since 1995 when food regulations were upgraded. Still, the editorial says, "one does not see evidence of sustained improvement" either.

    Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Scott Hensley edits stories about health, biomedical research and pharmaceuticals for NPR's Science desk. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he has led the desk's reporting on the development of vaccines against the coronavirus.