Are foodborne-illness outbreaks getting worse, or is detection getting better?

From lettuce to cookies, avocados to cheesecake, the last few years have seen a number of high-profile food recalls. According to the CDC, an estimated 48 million Americans get sick each year from foodborne illnesses. But the question of whether such outbreaks are getting worse is complicated, due to a combination of improved detection technology, a looser approach to regulation, and growing consolidation in the food industry, as Leah Douglas reports in FERN’s latest story, published as part of Time magazine’s special issue on the Science of Nutrition.

“While the overall number of total recalls fell slightly in 2018, to 703, from 817 in 2017, if you dig into those numbers, you get a more complicated picture,” Douglas writes. “Incidences of Class 3 recalls, for products that violate federal labeling or manufacturing laws, rose 21 percent between 2017 and 2018, the most recent year for which data is available. Class 1 recalls were up slightly from 2013 to 2018.

“One explanation is simple: Regulators are using improved technology, which translates to more detections of contaminated products. Another factor could be the antiregulatory policies of the Trump administration. While they are not increasing the number of recalls, they have slowed efforts to correct conditions that may cause them.”

But rising consolidation in food production and processing is a major, if perhaps unexpected, factor. “Just a few examples of how consolidation has affected our food system: The top four companies in each sector control 85 percent of beef processing, 79 percent of soybean processing, and 95 percent of cane-sugar refining. ‘Because more food is being transferred through a smaller number of processing facilities, if there’s a problem at one of those choke points, it magnifies the size,’ says Matthew Stasiewicz, an assistant professor of food microbiology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.”