Bad Food: Illnesses from Imported Food Are on the Rise, CDC Says

The biggest sources of illness from imported foods in recent years: fish and spices.

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E. Coli

There’s a good chance that at least part of your lunch came from another country. According to the Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, food imports to the U.S. grew to $86 billion in 2010 from $41 billion in 1999. Most of that came in fruits and vegetables — think of all the produce that now flows into the U.S. from Central and South America — but an estimated 85% of the seafood consumed in the U.S. is also imported, often from fish farms. Altogether about 16% of the food eaten in the U.S. comes from other countries — and given some of the many holes in the food safety net for imports, that should be a little concerning.

That’s exactly what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is worried about. In a new report published on Wednesday, the CDC estimated that foodborne disease outbreaks caused by imported food appeared to rise in 2009 and 2010, and that nearly half of the outbreaks implicated foods imported from areas that had not before been associated with outbreaks. It’s no surprise — as we eat more food from around the world, some of that food is making us sick.

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Hannah Gould, an epidemiologist at the CDC’s division of foodborne, waterborne and environmental diseases and the lead author of the research, put the work in perspective:

As our food supply becomes more global, people are eating foods from all over the world, potentially exposing them to germs from all corners of the world, too. We saw an increased number of outbreaks due to imported foods during recent years, and more types of foods from more countries causing outbreaks.

The CDC experts reviewed reported foodborne illness outbreaks from 2005 to 2010 and found that during that period, 39 outbreaks and 2,348 illnesses were linked to imported food from 15 countries — with nearly half of the outbreaks occurring in 2009 and 2010. Unsurprisingly fish were the biggest source of the outbreaks — given how easily they can go bad — with spices coming up next. And nearly half of the outbreaks originated in Asia.

The past year has been a tough one for those fighting foodborne illness, with a major E. coli outbreak killing dozens of people in Europe. The recently enacted Food Safety Modernization Act offered a much-needed overhaul to American defenses against foodborne illness, but as the near constant stream of outbreaks shows, we’re still not doing enough. (Putting some real money into the law would be helpful too.) And the battle is going to get tougher — as the CDC report shows, it’s not just American food we have to worry about anymore.

MORE: The Food Safety Bill Finally Passes