Surveillance for foodborne disease outbreaks - United States, 1998-2008

MMWR Surveill Summ. 2013 Jun 28;62(2):1-34.


Problem/condition: Foodborne diseases cause an estimated 48 million illnesses each year in the United States, including 9.4 million caused by known pathogens. Foodborne disease outbreak surveillance provides valuable insights into the agents and foods that cause illness and the settings in which transmission occurs. CDC maintains a surveillance program for collection and periodic reporting of data on the occurrence and causes of foodborne disease outbreaks in the United States. This surveillance system is the primary source of national data describing the numbers of illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths; etiologic agents; implicated foods; contributing factors; and settings of food preparation and consumption associated with recognized foodborne disease outbreaks in the United States.

Reporting period: 1998-2008.

Description of the system: The Foodborne Disease Outbreak Surveillance System collects data on foodborne disease outbreaks, defined as the occurrence of two or more cases of a similar illness resulting from the ingestion of a common food. Public health agencies in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, U.S. territories, and Freely Associated States have primary responsibility for identifying and investigating outbreaks and use a standard form to report outbreaks voluntarily to CDC. During 1998-2008, reporting was made through the electronic Foodborne Outbreak Reporting System (eFORS).

Results: During 1998-2008, CDC received reports of 13,405 foodborne disease outbreaks, which resulted in 273,120 reported cases of illness, 9,109 hospitalizations, and 200 deaths. Of the 7,998 outbreaks with a known etiology, 3,633 (45%) were caused by viruses, 3,613 (45%) were caused by bacteria, 685 (5%) were caused by chemical and toxic agents, and 67 (1%) were caused by parasites. Among the 7,724 (58%) outbreaks with an implicated food or contaminated ingredient reported, 3,264 (42%) could be assigned to one of 17 predefined commodity categories: fish, crustaceans, mollusks, dairy, eggs, beef, game, pork, poultry, grains/beans, oils/sugars, fruits/nuts, fungi, leafy vegetables, root vegetables, sprouts, and vegetables from a vine or stalk. The commodities implicated most commonly were poultry (18.9%; 95% confidence interval [CI] = 17.4-20.3) and fish (18.6%; CI = 17.2-20), followed by beef (11.9%; CI = 10.8-13.1). The pathogen-commodity pairs most commonly responsible for outbreaks were scombroid toxin/histamine and fish (317 outbreaks), ciguatoxin and fish (172 outbreaks), Salmonella and poultry (145 outbreaks), and norovirus and leafy vegetables (141 outbreaks). The pathogen-commodity pairs most commonly responsible for outbreak-related illnesses were norovirus and leafy vegetables (4,011 illnesses), Clostridium perfringens and poultry (3,452 illnesses), Salmonella and vine-stalk vegetables (3,216 illnesses), and Clostridium perfringens and beef (2,963 illnesses). Compared with the first 2 years of the study (1998-1999), the percentage of outbreaks associated with leafy vegetables and dairy increased substantially during 2006-2008, while the percentage of outbreaks associated with eggs decreased.

Interpretation: Outbreak reporting rates and implicated foods varied by state and year, respectively; analysis of surveillance data for this 11-year period provides important information regarding changes in sources of illness over time. A substantial percentage of foodborne disease outbreaks were associated with poultry, fish, and beef, whereas many outbreak-related illnesses were associated with poultry, leafy vegetables, beef, and fruits/nuts. The percentage of outbreaks associated with leafy vegetables and dairy increased during the surveillance period, while the percentage associated with eggs decreased.

Public health actions: Outbreak surveillance data highlight the etiologic agents, foods, and settings involved most often in foodborne disease outbreaks and can help to identify food commodities and preparation settings in which interventions might be most effective. Analysis of data collected over several years of surveillance provides a means to assess changes in the food commodities associated most frequently with outbreaks that might occur following improvements in food safety or changes in consumption patterns or food preparation practices. Prevention of foodborne disease depends on targeted interventions at appropriate points from food production to food preparation. Efforts to reduce foodborne illness should focus on the pathogens and food commodities causing the most outbreaks and outbreak-associated illnesses, including beef, poultry, fish, and produce.

MeSH terms

  • Disease Outbreaks / statistics & numerical data*
  • Food Contamination
  • Foodborne Diseases / epidemiology*
  • Foodborne Diseases / etiology
  • Hospitalization / statistics & numerical data
  • Humans
  • Population Surveillance*
  • Salmonella Food Poisoning / epidemiology
  • United States / epidemiology