Each year more than 40 million Americans become sick with foodborne infections. Among those who become ill, 128,000 will be hospitalized and 3,000 will die. Foodborne illness also takes a toll on our economy: Broad estimates are that the US loses $77 billion in lost productivity due to people who become sick - adding in more estimates of economic impact a foodborne illness outbreak has on the affected industry.

Usually, a great deal of effort has gone into preventing foodborne illness outbreaks. In 2010, the Obama administration got the Food Safety Management Act passed but it hasn't been funded or implemented, though they have scuttled other food testing divisions of the government that have been focused on preventing contamination of food supply.

Last year, the US was hit with one of the deadliest foodborne illness outbreaks in recent memory when contaminated cantaloupe sickened more than a hundred people and killed dozens. The contamination was eventually traced to fruit from a single processing plant, but in addition to the illness and death that resulted, the entire cantaloupe industry was affected when the price of cantaloupes dropped by more than 30% nationwide as consumer fear drove down demand.

But even with more and better prevention efforts, it is economically, politically, and scientifically difficult to guarantee 100% protection of the US food supply. The authors of a new report,  "When Good Food Goes Bad: Strengthening the US Response to Foodborne Disease Outbreaks", argue that we need to increase our focus on improving the speed and accuracy with which we detect and respond to outbreaks. 

"The sooner the source of an outbreak is identified, the sooner we can issue accurate targeted warnings and take the contaminated products off the shelves," notes Jennifer Nuzzo, author of the report. "And the sooner people stop eating contaminated food, the sooner the sickness stops."

Once protective actions are implemented, additional illness and death, as well as economic tolls, can be minimized. The report recommends several actions, including:

  • Bolster the public health departments that conduct outbreak investigations so that they have the tools and people they need to detect outbreaks, quickly identify the source, and issue targeted warnings. When public health departments are able to quickly solve outbreaks, it saves lives.

  • Tap the expertise of the private sector to help us solve outbreaks. The US food supply is becoming increasingly complex, and as a result outbreaks are becoming more difficult to solve. We need to find ways of soliciting expertise from the people who know how production and distribution systems are organized and use that to inform public health investigations of outbreaks.

  • Develop technologies to ensure that our national foodborne illness surveillance programs stay up to date and relevant.