Move over, salmonella. A new bacteria is now heading the list of the most common foodborne illnesses.
The campylobacter bacteria, often found in raw poultry, fresh produce and unpasteurized milk, was the leading cause of food-related infection in 2016, according to new national estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Campylobacter is one of four primary causes of diarrheal diseases, which affect more than 500 million people worldwide every year, notes the World Health Organization (WHO). Upon infection, it produces abdominal pain, diarrhea, fever, headache and nausea, with symptoms that can last between three to six days.
The bacteria is found naturally in the intestines of chickens, cattle and other animals, and poor cooking hygiene of food derived from these animals can lead to infection, says the WHO.
Overall, the CDC found that roughly 24,000 illnesses and 98 deaths related to foodborne illness occurred in 2016, numbers that are on par with recent years. About one in six Americans is infected with a foodborne pathogen every year, according to estimates.
Other infectious agents that made the list in 2016 include shigella, E. coli, cryptosporidium and yersinia.
New Testing Methods Shake Up Reporting
Salmonella had been the number-one cause of foodborne illness for the past 20 years, according to the CDC. Officials there believe the emergence of new, rapid tests known as culture-independent diagnostic tests (CIDT) may simply be reporting foodborne illness data more accurately than in years past.
“This report provides important information about which foodborne germs are making people sick in the United States,” said Dr. Robert Tauxe, Director of the CDC’s Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases. “It also points out changes in the ways clinicians are testing for foodborne illness and gaps in information as a result.”
The CDC report says that the new CIDT testing may be making illness prevalence “more visible” rather than reflecting “a true increase in infections.” In others words, the campylobacter reporting data may simply be catching up to the actual numbers of people who catch it.
However, while CIDTs may be bringing the national picture up to speed, many healthcare providers are no longer conducting more detailed tests that can tie a single disease to an outbreak, for example.
“We need foodborne-illness trend data to monitor progress toward making our food supply safer,” Tauxe said. “It’s important that laboratories continue to do follow-up cultures on CIDT-positive patients so public health officials can get the information needed to protect people from foodborne illness.”
You can take steps to limit your exposure to campylobacter and other foodborne pathogens. For example, you should always wash your hands after handling raw meat and cook meat to specified temperatures that will kill harmful bacteria. Cooking poultry to 165 degrees and beef to 160 degrees is the lower limit.
Also, don’t limit your precautions to meat. Fresh greens, such as lettuce and spinach, are tied to a substantial number of infections. Be sure to wash any greens thoroughly before eating them.
Richard Scott is a health care reporter focusing on health policy and public health. Richard keeps tabs on national health trends from his Philadelphia location and is an active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.