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Disease Outbreaks Tied to Imported Foods Increasing according to the CDC

April 04, 2012

Story at-a-glance

  • New research released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that food-borne disease outbreaks linked to imported foods are on the rise
  • Most of the outbreaks were due to fish (17 outbreaks) and spices (particularly fresh or dried peppers), which are also among the most commonly imported foods
  • Nearly 45 percent of the imported foods linked to outbreaks came from Asia
  • The more steps your food goes through before it reaches your plate, the greater your chances of contamination becomes: if you get your food locally, directly from the field or after harvest, such as directly from a farmer or farmer's market, you knock out numerous routes that could expose your food to contamination, as well as can be sure of the quality of growing conditions

By Dr. Mercola

The more steps your food goes through before it reaches your plate, the greater your chances of contamination becomes.

If you are able to get your food locally, directly from the field or after harvest, such as directly from a farmer or farmer's market, you knock out numerous routes that could expose your food to contamination.

So it is not surprising that new research released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that foodborne disease outbreaks linked to imported foods are on the rise.

As Food Imports Rise, so do Foodborne Disease Outbreaks

Foodborne disease outbreaks linked to imported foods rose in both 2009 and 2010 (data for 2011 is still being analyzed).

In all, 39 outbreaks and 2,348 illnesses were linked to imported foods from 15 countries.

However, nearly half of the outbreaks occurred in 2009 and 2010 …

Most of the outbreaks were due to fish (17 outbreaks) and spices (particularly fresh or dried peppers), which are also among the most commonly imported foods.

For instance, data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA's) Economic Research Service (ERS) reveals that 85 percent of seafood eaten by Americans is imported! As rates of food imports rise (ERS data shows that U.S. food import has nearly doubled from 1998 to 2007), it's likely that disease outbreaks will become increasingly common. As it is, the numbers are thought to be a serious underestimate, as food-borne disease outbreaks are commonly under-reported.

Nearly Half of the Tainted Foods Came From This Region …

The data shows that more types of food, from more different countries, are being linked to disease outbreaks. However, one region still takes the "prize" for the most tainted food … Nearly 45 percent of the foods linked to outbreaks came from Asia.

This may be because this region is also a major exporter to the United States, so the sheer numbers of imports would increase the chances. China is the largest exporter of seafood to the United States. (They're also the largest U.S. supplier of canned vegetables, fruit juices, honey, and other processed foods.) Wal-Mart, in particular, is one of China's largest trading partners. However, there are problems with food quality in the region as well.

According to a 2008 Congressional testimony by Don Kraemer, deputy director of the Office of Food Safety at the FDA:1

"In the past, [the] FDA has encountered compliance problems with several Chinese food exports, including lead and cadmium in ceramicware used to store and ship food, and staphylococcal contamination of canned mushrooms. While improvements have been made in these products, the safety of food and other products from China remains a concern for [the] FDA, Congress, and American consumers."

Since that testimony, a variety of Chinese exports have come under fire for being dangerously contaminated with one poison or another, and in some cases with deadly consequences. This includes:

  • Pet food ingredients laced with toxic melamine
  • Imported livestock quarantined for disease and banned chemical contaminants
  • Catfish filets from Chinese aquatic farms tainted with bacteria and heavy metals
  • Dried apples preserved with a cancer-causing chemical
  • Mushrooms laced with illegal pesticides

Another Asian country, Taiwan, has also made headlines because of the contamination of numerous foods and beverages with plasticizer chemicals like DEHP. More than 1 million sports drinks, fruit jams, instant noodles containing sesame oil packets, cookies and other food products were taken off shelves due to the toxin. It appears that the chemical was added to foods as a substitute for more expensive ingredients like palm oil, and it's unclear how long this had going on or whether most manufacturers were aware of the contamination.

Our global food system makes it so Asian foods (and those from many other regions) are easily obtainable at your local supermarket … but when food is produced and distributed on such a massive scale, contamination often occurs on a massive scale as well.

Food Infections Common from U.S. Foods Too

An estimated one in six Americans gets infected every year from consuming contaminated food. Sometimes this results in a 24-hour bout of diarrhea and vomiting that clears up on its own, but in other cases foodborne pathogens can lead to organ failure, paralysis, neurological impairment, blindness, stillbirths and even death.

Over 100,000 people are hospitalized from foodborne illnesses each year in the United States, and 3,000 die. This is not only from imported foods, but from those produced right here in the United States.

You see, just because a food is manufactured on U.S. soil does not guarantee its safety. Most of the meat sold in U.S. grocery stores and restaurants come from confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), which can house tens of thousands of animals (and in the case of chickens, 100,000) under one roof, in nightmarish, unsanitary, disease-ridden conditions. It's under these conditions that foodborne pathogens flourish, and indeed studies have shown that the larger the farm, the greater the chances of contamination.

In one study, more than 23 percent of CAFOs with caged hens tested positive for Salmonella, while just over 4 percent of organic flocks tested positive. The highest prevalence of Salmonella occurred in the largest flocks (30,000 birds or more), which contained over four times the average level of salmonella found in smaller flocks.Organic flocks are typically much smaller than the massive commercial flocks where bacteria flourish, which is part of the reason why eggs (and other products, like meat) from truly organic, free-range sources are FAR less likely to contain dangerous bacteria such as Salmonella.

If you still buy your meat at your supermarket, even if it's U.S. raised, you should know that you are directly supporting a food system that typically promotes widespread contamination.

And you can bet that as long as there are people willing to buy cheap, contaminated meat, the industry will continue to produce it. Consumer Reports tests indicated that 83 percent of fresh, whole broiler chickens bought at supermarkets nationwide harbor Campylobacter or Salmonella.2 This is clearly unacceptable, and if you start to demand more -- meat that is raised in a healthy, humane way, free from toxins and disease -- producers will have no choice but to listen.

Buying Local is One of the Best Ways to Avoid Food Poisoning

I encourage you to support the small family farms in your area, particularly organic farms that respect the laws of nature and use the relationships between animals, plants, insects, soil, water and habitat to create synergistic, self-supporting, non-polluting, GMO-free ecosystems.

If you value food safety, you'll want to get your meat, chickens and eggs from smaller community farms with free-ranging animals, organically fed and locally marketed. This is the way food has been raised and distributed for centuries ...

If you opt for imported foods, or those from U.S. CAFOs, your food will go through upwards of 9 steps before it reaches your dinner plate. Public health agencies like the FDA use the term "field-to-fork continuum" to describe the path any given food takes on the way to your plate, and during any of the following steps, contamination is possible:

  1. Open field production
  2. Harvesting
  3. Field packing
  4. Greenhouse production
  5. Packinghouse or field packing
  6. Repacking and other distribution operations
  7. Fresh-cut/value-added processing
  8. Food service and retail
  9. Consumer

I personally purchase my whole chickens from a health food store that gets them from a local farmer and they are grown organically and humanely. They cost a bit more but they are worth it -- and when you consider that most of us only spend around 10% of our income on food, it is a bargain to get high-quality food. In most countries and in previous generations in the US, up to 25% of income was spent on food.

If you are able to get your food directly from the farmer, you knock out five potential operations that could expose your food to contamination. The closer you are to the source of your food, the fewer hands it has to pass through and the less time it will sit in storage -- so the better, and likely safer, it will be for you and your family. Plus, when you know the person who grows your food, you can ask questions about its growing conditions -- an impossibility when you buy food from CAFOs or other countries. If eating locally is new to you, rest assured that you can find a source near you, regardless of whether you're in a remote or rural area or a big city. 

Here's a list of helpful resources:

  • For a listing of national farmer's markets, see this link.
  • Another great web site is There you can find farmers' markets, family farms, and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area where you can buy produce, grass-fed meats, and many other goodies.
  • Subscribe to a community supported agriculture program (CSA). Some are seasonal while others are year round programs. Once you subscribe, many will drop affordable, high quality locally-grown produce right at your door step. To find a CSA near you, go to the USDA's website where you can search by city, state, or zip code.
  • Eat Well Guide: Wholesome Food from Healthy Animals is a free online directory of sustainably raised meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs from farms, stores, restaurants, inns, and hotels, and online outlets in the United States and Canada.
  • Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) is dedicated to sustaining agriculture and promoting the products of small farms.
  • FoodRoutes. Their "Find Good Food" map can help you connect with local farmers to find the freshest, tastiest food possible. On their interactive map, you can find a listing for local farmers, CSA's, and markets near you.
  • For an even more comprehensive list of CSA's and a host of other sustainable agriculture programs, check out this link to my Sustainable Agriculture page.
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Sources and References

  • 1 U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Testimony, Chinese Seafood Imports April 25, 2008
  • 2 Consumer January 2007
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