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Food-borne Illnesses Show Biggest Drop Amid Pandemic Year

The COVID-19 pandemic had at least one positive impact: The reported instances of food-borne illnesses last year showed the biggest drop since the government began tracking them. However, it was unclear whether the result was from people eating at home more, increased overall hygiene, or more awareness about best food-handling practices.

A report issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month indicates there were 26% fewer infections in 2020 compared with the average annual number during 2017-19. The researchers speculated more handwashing and less international travel were major contributors to the reduction but assumed cases also may have been underreported because people were reluctant to seek treatment amid the burgeoning pandemic.

Jete Nelke, head of marketing at FoodDocs, told The Food Institute the pandemic made people more careful.

“Some people want to be 100% sure their food is safe, which makes them cook more at home,” Nelke said, adding that technology has helped make food safer by making it easier to guarantee it is being served at a safe temperature.

The CDC’s FoodNet surveillance system found 18,462 infections caused by food last year, including 4,788 that required hospitalizations, and 118 deaths.

The CDC lists norovirus, salmonella, Clostridium perfringens, Campylobacter and staphylococcus aureus as the “top five germs that cause illnesses from food eaten in the United States.” Clostridium botulinum, Listeria, Escherichia coli and Vibrio are the pathogens most likely to lead to hospitalizations. Pregnant women, young children, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems are most at risk.

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

The report noted that before 2020, the incidence of food-borne illnesses had not declined for many years.

Of the 18,462 infections reported last year, the highest incidence was attributed to Campylobacter, followed by salmonella, Shigella, Yersinia and Vibrio.

The CDC said its report suffered from three limitations: “First, the pandemic and corresponding public health response make explaining changes in the observed incidences of infections challenging. Second, changes in healthcare-seeking behaviors and healthcare delivery during the pandemic likely limited ascertainment of cases. Finally, sites reported decreases that varied over time in the willingness of ill persons to be interviewed and in staff member capacity to conduct case interviews. These factors might have resulted in missing data and recall bias.”

At the same time, public health interventions to prevent the spread of COVID “likely influence exposures associated with enteric diseases, resulting in real declines and incidence, as evidenced by decreased numbers of infections associated with international travel.”