CDC Report on Foodborne Illness Is Skewed by Single Large Outbreak

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has published a report on foodborne illness which presents a misleading picture of the safety of poultry. The report contains anomalies that seriously skew the results.

The report suggests that poultry is the single leading cause of outbreaks of foodborne illness, with poultry responsible for 21 percent of outbreak-related cases. This is based on attributing 1,355 cases to poultry out of a total of 6,395 cases (21.1 percent). However, of the total cases attributed to poultry, 741 stemmed from a single incident in an Alabama jail or prison in March 2006 which is suspected (but not confirmed, accordingly to a publicly available CDC database) to result from Clostridium perfringens in baked chicken. Without this single incident, poultry would account for 614 of 5,653 cases, or 10.9 percent. This would place poultry well behind other commodities mentioned in the report.

The Alabama incident also explains another oddity in the report: the high number of cases (902) attributed to C. perfringens in poultry, which typically causes problems if food is left out in the “danger zone” between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit for an extended period of time. While C. perfringens is a known cause of foodborne illness in poultry (as well as other foods), it has not previously been mentioned as a leading cause. If the Alabama cases are removed from the total, the number of cases of foodborne illness from C. perfringens in poultry in 2006 would be 161. According to the report, the average annual number of cases of foodborne illness from C. perfringens in all food sources from 2001 to 2005 was 2,077.

“America’s chicken producers and processors work hard to provide safe, wholesome food to customers in the United States and around the world,” said Steve Pretanik, the National Chicken Council’s director of science and technology. “Any case of foodborne illness is unfortunate, but it is unfair to present a picture that is skewed by a single, unusual event.”

The National Chicken Council represents integrated chicken producer-processors, the companies that produce and process chickens. Member companies of NCC account for approximately 95 percent of the chicken sold in the United States.

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