Incidence and Trends of Infection With Pathogens Transmitted Commonly Through Food

Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network, 10 U.S. Sites, 2006-2013

Stacy M. Crim, MPH; Martha Iwamoto, MD; Jennifer Y. Huang, MPH; Patricia M. Griffin, MD; Debra Gilliss, MD; Alicia B. Cronquist, MPH; Matthew Cartter, MD; Melissa Tobin-D'Angelo, MD; David Blythe, MD; Kirk Smith, DVM; Sarah Lathrop, PhD; Shelley Zansky, PhD; Paul R. Cieslak, MD; John Dunn, DVM; Kristin G. Holt, DVM; Susan Lance, DVM; Robert Tauxe, MD; Olga L. Henao, PhD


Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 2014;63(15):328-332. 

In This Article


The incidence of laboratory-confirmed Salmonella infections was lower in 2013 than 2010–2012, whereas the incidence of Vibrio infections increased. No changes were observed for infection with Campylobacter, Listeria, STEC O157, or Yersinia, the other pathogens transmitted commonly through food for which Healthy People 2020 targets exist. The lack of recent progress toward these targets points to gaps in the current food safety system and the need for more food safety interventions.

Although the incidence of Salmonella infection in 2013 was lower than during 2010–2012, it was similar to 2006–2008, well above the national Healthy People target. Salmonella organisms live in the intestines of many animals and can be transmitted to humans through contaminated food or water or through direct contact with animals or their environments; different serotypes can have different reservoirs and sources. Enteritidis, the most commonly isolated serotype, is often associated with eggs and poultry. The incidence of Enteritidis infection was lower in 2013 compared with 2010–2012, but not compared with 2006–2008. This might be partly explained by the large Enteritidis outbreak linked to eggs in 2010.** Ongoing efforts to reduce contamination of eggs include FDA's Egg Safety Rule, which requires shell egg producers to implement controls to prevent contamination of eggs on the farm and during storage and transportation.†† FDA required compliance by all egg producers with ≥50,000 laying hens by 2010 and by producers with ≥3,000 hens by 2012. Reduction in Enteritidis infection has been one of five high-priority goals for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services since 2012.§§

In 2013, the incidence of Vibrio infections was the highest observed in FoodNet to date, though still much lower than that of Salmonella or Campylobacter. Vibrio infections are most common during warmer months, when waters contain more Vibrio organisms. Many infections follow contact with seawater,[4] but about 50% of domestically acquired infections are transmitted through food, most commonly oysters.[5] Foodborne infections can be prevented by postharvest treatment of oysters with heat, freezing, or high pressure, by thorough cooking, or by not eating oysters during warmer months.[6] During the summers of 2012 and 2013, many V. parahaemolyticus infections of a strain previously traced only to the Pacific Northwest were associated with consumption of oysters and other shellfish from several Atlantic Coast harvest areas.¶¶V. alginolyticus, the second most common Vibrio reported to FoodNet in 2013, typically causes wound and soft-tissue infections among persons who have contact with water.[7]

The continued decrease in the incidence of postdiarrheal HUS has not been matched by a decline in STEC O157 infections. Possible explanations include unrecognized changes in surveillance, improvements in management of STEC O157 diarrhea, or an actual decrease in infections with the most virulent strains of STEC O157. It is possible that more stool specimens are being tested for STEC, resulting in increased detection of milder infections than in the past. Continued surveillance is needed to determine if this pattern holds.

CIDTs are increasingly used by clinical laboratories to diagnose bacterial enteric infections, a trend that will challenge the ability to identify cases, monitor trends, detect outbreaks, and characterize pathogens.[8] Therefore, FoodNet began tracking CIDT-positive reports and surveying clinical laboratories about their diagnostic practices. The adoption of CIDTs has varied by pathogen and has been highest for STEC and Campylobacter. Positive CIDTs frequently cannot be confirmed by culture, and the positive predictive value varies by the CIDT used. For STEC, most specimens identified as Shiga toxin–positive were sent to a public health laboratory for confirmation. However, for other pathogens the fraction of specimens from patients with a positive CIDT sent for confirmation likely is low because no national guidelines regarding confirmation of CIDT results currently exist. As the number of approved CIDTs increases, their use likely will increase rapidly. Clinicians, clinical and public health laboratorians, public health practitioners, regulatory agencies, and industry must work together to maintain strong surveillance to detect dispersed outbreaks, measure the impact of prevention measures, and identify emerging threats.

The findings in this report are subject to at least five limitations. First, health-care–seeking behaviors and other characteristics of the population in the surveillance area might affect the generalizability of the findings. Second, some agents transmitted commonly through food (e.g., norovirus) are not monitored by FoodNet because clinical laboratories do not routinely test for them. Third, the proportion of illnesses transmitted by nonfood routes differs by pathogen; data provided in this report are not limited to infections from food. Fourth, in some fatal cases, infection with the enteric pathogen might not have been the primary cause of death. Finally, changes in incidence between periods can reflect year-to-year variation during those periods rather than sustained trends.

Most foodborne illnesses can be prevented, and progress has been made in decreasing contamination of some foods and reducing illness caused by some pathogens since 1996, when FoodNet began. More can be done; surveillance data provide information on where to target prevention efforts. In 2011, USDA-FSIS tightened its performance standard for Salmonella contamination of whole broiler chickens; in 2013, 3.9% of samples tested positive (Christopher Aston, USDA-FSIS, Office of Data Integration and Food Protection; personal communication; 2014). Because most chicken is purchased as cut-up parts, USDA-FSIS conducted a nationwide survey of raw chicken parts in 2012 and calculated an estimated 24% prevalence of Salmonella.[9] In 2013, USDA-FSIS released its Salmonella Action Plan that indicates that USDA-FSIS will conduct a risk assessment and develop performance standards for poultry parts during 2014, among other key activities.[10] The Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011 gives FDA additional authority to regulate food facilities, establish standards for safe produce, recall contaminated foods, and oversee imported foods; it also calls on CDC to strengthen surveillance and outbreak response.[1] For consumers, advice on safely buying, preparing, and storing foods prone to contamination is available online.