COVID-19 Pandemic Leads To Significant Drop In Food Poisoning Cases: CDC

The number of food poisoning cases reported throughout the U.S. dropped significantly last year, largely due to safety measures implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to federal researchers.

In a study published last week in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, researchers indicate there was a 26% drop in foodborne illnesses during 2020, following many years of rising numbers.

Researchers used data from the Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network (FoodNet) of the CDC’s Emerging Infections Program, which monitors the incidence of laboratory-diagnosed infections caused by eight pathogens transmitted through food, like E. coli and salmonella.

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During 2020, FoodNet reported 26% fewer infections from pathogens transmitted through food, compared with the average annual number during 2017-2019. The data indicated infections linked to international travel also decreased.

Prior to 2020, there had been no decrease in infections from foodborne pathogens, as numbers either increased or remained stable for many years. The drop in 2020 was the greatest single year decrease in infections in FoodNet’s 25 years of surveillance. The report also indicates the frequency in which foodborne illnesses were reported also decreased.

The reason for the decrease may be a combination of factors. The data may indicate a true drop in the number of cases of foodborne illness or it may also indicate there were fewer cases reported, as more people opted to stay home if they felt ill, instead of seeking treatment in the hospital. This may also be a side effect of the pandemic, as fewer people opted to go to the hospital for fear of contracting COVID-19.

Researchers believe widespread COVID-19 interventions and newly formed habits, like frequent hand washing, hygiene behaviors, travel restrictions and other interventions likely contributed to the reduction in foodborne illnesses.

Other factors may include an increase in healthcare delivery, healthcare seeking behaviors, and laboratory testing practices.

Understanding these factors could lead to improved strategies to prevent illness in the future, even after the pandemic has ended, researchers noted.

Despite the decrease, CDC researchers said more needed to be done. Roughly 48 million Americans are sickened from foodborne illnesses every year and roughly 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die from illnesses contracted from food.

“To reduce the incidence of these infections concerted efforts are needed, from farm to processing plant to restaurants and homes,” CDC researchers wrote. “Consumers can reduce their risk of foodborne illness by following safe food-handling and preparation recommendations.”

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