Disease Outbreaks Linked to Imported Foods Mounting, U.S. Says

A fresh tuna in the Philippines. Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg

The frequency of disease outbreaks linked to imported food is rising, with fish and spices the most-common source of illness, a U.S. health agency said.

Almost half of the 39 outbreaks and 2,348 illnesses linked to food imports from 2005 to 2010 occurred in the final two years of the period, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fish accounted for 17 of the outbreaks, while spices were responsible for six, the CDC said.

As much as 85 percent of the seafood and 60 percent of fresh produce eaten in the U.S. is imported. Almost 50 percent of the outbreaks involved foods that came from areas that hadn’t been associated with multiple illnesses, the CDC said.

“As our food supply becomes more global, people are eating foods from all over the world, potentially exposing them to germs from all corners of the world, too,” Hannah Gould, an epidemiologist at the Atlanta-based agency, said in a statement.

It’s too early to say if the numbers represent a trend, Gould said.

About 45 percent of the imported foods causing outbreaks were from Asia, according to the research, which was presented at the International Conference on Emerging Infectious Diseases in Atlanta.

Global Food Chain

The findings probably underestimate the actual number of outbreaks, Gould said. About 16 percent of all food eaten in the U.S. is imported.

U.S. food imports increased to $78 billion in 2007 from $41 billion in 1998, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Much of the growth has occurred in fruits and vegetables, seafood and processed food.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which oversees produce, said it inspects about 2 percent of imports. However, the regulator screens 10 million annual shipments to determine if the food is high risk. That determination is used to decide which shipments are inspected, Douglas Karas, an FDA spokesman, said in an interview.

The agency is also increasing the number of foreign food processing facilities it inspects. It visited 600 last year and will double that every year for the next five years, bringing the total to 19,200, he said. A pending regulation also will make importers responsible for ensuring the food products they handle meet U.S. food safety standards, he said.

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