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Volume 5, Number 6—December 1999

Food-Related Illness and Death in the United States

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To the Editor: Dr. Mead and colleagues should be commended for attempting to estimate the prevalence of foodborne disease in the United States (1). Their study provides more complete estimates than previous studies in terms of the number of foodborne pathogens included; for example, it includes the first realistic estimate of the number of cases of disease due to Norwalk-like caliciviruses. However, the publication of these estimates raises some important issues.

Even though "accurate estimates of disease burden are the foundation of sound public health policy" (2), most of these estimates (in particular, the assumption that unknown agents are transmitted by food in the same proportion as known agents) were derived from assumptions rather than data. Known foodborne agents clearly cannot account for most gastrointestinal illnesses (1). However, illnesses from unknown agents may be as likely to have the transmission characteristics of rotavirus (1% foodborne) or Cryptosporidium (10% foodborne) as those of the Norwalk-like viruses (40% foodborne). Furthermore, it was assumed that detecting outbreaks or cases of toxin-mediated illnesses (e.g., due to Bacillus cereus, Staphylococcus aureus, or Clostridium perfringens) follows the model of Salmonella. In the authors' entire list of known foodborne agents, data are presented for cases identified both from outbreaks and active surveillance for only three agents: Salmonella, Shigella, and Campylobacter. Salmonella is clearly the most highly characterized, hence the most attractive as a model. However, the ratios of the numbers of cases detected through active surveillance to the numbers of cases detected through outbreaks range from 10 for Salmonella to more than 400 for Campylobacter. What if the ratios for toxin-mediated illnesses were more similar to Campylobacter than to Salmonella ratios? The total estimated cases of these illnesses would increase by a factor of 40. The inadequacy of simply applying a Salmonella-based multiplier to the number of cases reported from outbreaks can be demonstrated by applying that multiplier to the total number of cases reported in all foodborne disease outbreaks, typically 15,000 to 20,000 per year (3,4). On the basis of these estimates, the number of foodborne illnesses would range from 5.7 million to 7.6 million, including illnesses caused by unknown agents.

The authors make similar assumptions for hospitalizations and deaths: unknown agents are estimated to account for 81% of hospitalizations and 65% of deaths due to foodborne illnesses. In a retrospective review of death certificate data similar to that used by Mead and colleagues, Perkins et al. projected the number of unexplained deaths possibly due to infectious diseases they expected to find in the Emerging Infections Program sites (5). Prospectively, a much smaller number of unexplained deaths was actually found, because known causes were identified through a detailed review of the death certificates and cases (6). A prospective examination of death certificates for foodborne diseases might also result in a smaller than expected yield.

The need to rely on assumptions to generate estimates highlights the gaps in our understanding of foodborne diseases. A dozen different studies could address these data gaps. However, once the 76 million figure is agreed upon, the perceived need for these studies will decrease.

Finally, if these estimates are accepted as reasonable, do current food safety efforts represent sound public policy? If 82% of foodborne illnesses, 81% of hospitalizations, and 65% of deaths are caused by agents we have not yet identified, where is the commitment of resources needed to identify them? If eradicating Campylobacter, Salmonella, Escherichia coli O157:H7, and Listeria would reduce the number of foodborne illnesses by only 5%, hospitalizations by 10%, and deaths by 25%, why are these agents the primary focus of our national foodborne disease control efforts? Overestimating the occurrence of foodborne diseases caused by unknown agents may lead us to undervalue the public health importance of these and other well-known agents.

Estimating the occurrence of foodborne diseases is daunting. The numerous efforts, including this one by Mead et al., to provide estimates have serious shortcomings. The real challenge is to identify the gaps in our knowledge so that they can be systematically addressed and updated estimates of foodborne illness can be provided to guide prevention efforts and assess the effectiveness of current food safety measures (2).


Craig Hedberg
Author affiliation: University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA



  1. Mead  PS, Slutsker  L, Dietz  V, McCaig  LF, Bresee  JS, Shapiro  C, Food-related illness and death in the United States. Emerg Infect Dis. 1999;5:60725. DOIPubMedGoogle Scholar
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC data provides the most complete estimate on foodborne disease in the United States. Press release available at URL:
  3. Foodborne disease outbreaks, 5-year summary, 1983-1987. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 1992;39(SS-1):115.
  4. Surveillance for foodborne disease outbreaks. United States, 1988-92. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 1996;45(SS-5):255.
  5. Perkins  BA, Flood  JM, Danila  R, Holman  RC, Reingold  AL, Klug  LA, Unexplained deaths due to possibly infectious causes in the United States: defining the problem and designing surveillance and laboratory approaches. Emerg Infect Dis. 1996;2:4753. DOIPubMedGoogle Scholar
  6. Minnesota Department of Health. Annual summary of communicable diseases reported to the Minnesota Department of Health, 1998. Disease Control Newsletter. 1999;27:2930.


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DOI: 10.3201/eid0506.990624

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