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Food Poisoning and Foodborne Outbreaks are Still Here (We Just Don’t Hear About Them)

Posted in Food Safety,Our Blog,Outbreaks & Recalls on June 16, 2020

COVID-19 has impacted so many aspects of our lives.  Most notably, how we eat and even the safety of the food we eat.  If there was an “Eating Out Too Much” anonymous meeting, I should probably attend it.  Hi.  My name is Heather.  And I rarely cook at home.  Not something that I am all too proud of; but in my busy life, I probably eat out 60% of the time, even through I report on food poisoning and foodborne outbreaks all of the time!

Over the past few months, that has all changed.  Restaurants adapted and converted to curbside and drive thru almost immediately.  But the wind down experience ceased to exist and the time it took waiting for food impacted our decision to eat in more.  Almost exclusively now.  COVID gave us the order of slowing down whether we liked it or not.

I am not alone. In a recent survey 54% of respondents indicated that they cook more than before the pandemic.  Even 51% indicated that that will likely continue to cook more even after the crisis ends.

Could this dramatic change in American eating habits be responsible for the decline in foodborne illnesses?  Or are we missing something?  It could be a little bit of both.

COVID has impacted staffing at many key agencies, which means in fewer inspections and investigations resulting in fewer food related recalls.  Additionally, fear of potential exposure to COVID-19 has deterred many from seeking medical care for many foodborne illnesses.

Few Inspections and Investigations Mean Reduced Recalls and Outbreak Investigations

Are there fewer food inspections?  Agencies such as the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said no, and that food safety is not impacted.  But it seems logical that this rouse couldn’t be kept up for long.  The pandemic has hit the health and safety systems from every angle.  From the federal agencies charged with the responsibility to stop contaminated food before it leaves farms and factories, all the way to state and local health departments that test potential outbreak patients for foodborne illnesses like Salmonella and Listeria.

If staff were not already overwhelmed with COVID Response responsibilities, they were ordered to social distance.  The FDA announced in March that in-person inspections of factories, canneries, and poultry farms would be postponed as employees began working from home.  This resulted in an average of more than 900 FDA inspections typically occurring in a month to just 8 that took place in the month of April.  Resulting citations dropped from an average 100 a month to nearly none at all.  Unprecedented.

USDA Continues Meat Processing Inspections

Fortunately, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has continued their role in inspecting meat processing plants – where federal regulations dictate daily, if not continuous presence of a USDA representative.  Though the in-person food factory inspections have been postponed, just as the FDA has done.

This agency trucks on despite their own hurdles.  One source indicated that more than 1,000 inspectors were off the job either because they have fallen ill with COVID-19 or have high risk factors for medical complications associated with the disease.

Product Recalls Declined as a Result of Reduced Inspection

With fewer inspections, then number of product recalls have seen a decline.  Does this mean that there are potentially unsafe foods falling though the cracks?  We hope not, but it is likely the case.  Companies are now burdened with being extra vigilant in product testing (we hope they do this anyway) in that routine product testing is not being performed by the FDA or in some cases the state health department levels.

Weekly FDA recall reports have dropped from 173 in February to 105 in March to just 70 in April.  The trend is expected to continue.  USDA food recalls also have declined from an average of more than 10 a month to completely none in March.  In April, there were just 2 reported recalls.

A USDA spokesperson indicated that the agency is “continuing to meet all inspection obligations” and has pushed for more “accountability” in the food industry to provide safe products.  Additionally, the agency “is proactively engaging with industry to improve production practices and reduce the number of recalls and we are seeing the results of these efforts.”  I very much hope that this is the case.

People are Opting to Treat Foodborne Ailments Instead of Seeing a Doctor 

People are wearing a mask to protect themselves from this scary virus during every day, mundane activities from going to the grocery store, walking the dog, or getting an oil change.  Many people are terrified of the risk of exposure at a doctor’s office or hospital.  After all, that is where the sick people are.

Others often see the hospitals and doctors’ offices are overwhelmed with COVID patients and don’t want to burden them with food poisoning.  As a result, these cases are not counted and put in the database that trends foodborne illness.

Typically, local doctors and hospitals would enter foodborne illness data into a database called “PulseNet.”  It is managed by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and used by health agencies for epidemiological purposes and tracking outbreaks.  If people are opting to treat themselves at home when extreme symptoms are absent, fewer dots can be connected to form the bigger picture of an outbreak.

According to Dr. Robert Tauxe, director of the CDC’s foodborne illness division, compared to five-year averages there was a 50% decline in E. coli samples entered into PulseNet.  Salmonella cases showed a 25% drop.

Are Foodborne Illnesses Really on the Decline?

All things considered, do you really think that foodborne illnesses are on the decline?  Nope. I think they are still there, lurking in the background.

As a fellow consumer, and reformed “home cook” I hope so.  For your sake, my sake, and my family’s sake.

By: Heather Van Tassell