Imported Foods Causing More Disease

CDC: Imported Fish, Peppers Most Common Culprits

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on March 14, 2012

March 14, 2012 -- Foodborne disease from imported foods is on the rise, with more foods from more countries causing more outbreaks, the CDC says.

The most common culprits are fish and spices, particularly peppers, the CDC's Hannah Gould, PhD, said in a report to this week's International Conference on Emerging Infectious Diseases in Atlanta.

"We saw an increased number of outbreaks due to imported foods during recent years, and more types of foods from more countries causing outbreaks," Gould said in a news release.

Gould's team analyzed foodborne disease data from 2005 to 2010. Over those five years, imported foods caused 39 outbreaks and 2,348 reported illnesses.

About half those outbreaks came in the most recent two years.

"It's too early to say if the recent numbers represent a trend, but CDC officials are analyzing information from 2011 and will continue to monitor for these outbreaks in the future," Gould said.

Fish were behind 17 of the outbreaks. Spices were the source of six outbreaks, five of which were traced to fresh or dried peppers.

Almost half of the foods causing outbreaks -- 45% -- came from Asia.

Why the increase in foreign foodborne disease? It may not be that the food is any less safe. We're just importing more of it.

From 1998 to 2007, U.S. food imports grew from $41 billion to $78 billion. About 85% of the seafood Americans eat comes from outside the country. At some times of the year, 60% of U.S. fresh produce is imported.

Gould noted that the CDC numbers underestimate the true impact of imported food outbreaks. That's because the source of many outbreaks is never discovered, and because not all illnesses get reported.

"We need better -- and more -- information about what foods are causing outbreaks and where those foods are coming from," Gould said. "Knowing more about what is making people sick will help focus prevention efforts on those foods that pose a higher risk of causing illness."