What’s Making Us Sick?

New Online Resource From CSPI Offers Researchers, Journalists & Consumers the Best Data on Outbreaks of Foodborne Illness


WASHINGTON—Tainted spinach. Filthy beef. Chili with beans ... and botulism. Recent outbreaks of foodborne illness have shocked Americans and spurred calls for reform of the nation’s fossilized food safety laws. Now a new online database will help policymakers, reporters, and home cooks alike answer the central question: What, exactly, is making us sick?

CSPI has long maintained an offline database of foodborne illness outbreaks, compiled largely from the data issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s surveillance unit. For the early years, CSPI added data culled from state health departments, peer-reviewed medical journals, and verified media reports. (In the past, CDC did not make outbreak data public, but that changed when CSPI started filing Freedom of Information Act requests for it. Now CDC releases data about two years after the outbreaks occurred.) CSPI’s database includes all outbreaks (where two or more individuals got sick from eating the same food) for which both the food source and the pathogen have been identified. The database released today covers the years 1990 to 2004. Additional data on 2005 is available from CSPI, and will be released later this year.

The new online database lets individuals search by food, by pathogen, or by state. And the results aren’t pretty. Take poultry. The database includes 541 outbreaks and 16,280 associated illnesses. A search on produce reveals 639 outbreaks and 31,496 associated illnesses. Multi-ingredient items—sandwiches, salads, pasta, and other foods—were linked to 948 outbreaks and 27,812 associated illnesses.

“While food safety authorities address once crisis after another, from peanut butter to pet food, from ground beef to spinach, one has to ask why no one is really in charge,” said CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal. “Over the last year, we have seen a real disaster in food safety, and a plunge in consumer’s confidence in the food supply. Congress gives USDA funding to inspect meat plants on a daily basis, while FDA has far fewer inspectors and visits plants rarely – about one every 5 years. The outbreak data clearly shows that FDA’s high risk foods, like seafood and produce, need equal attention in our federal food safety system.”

That said, some foods might be out of the reach of reform. Meals of moose soup (at a potluck supper!), cougar jerky, polar bear meat, and beaver tail were each responsible for an outbreak or two in CSPI’s database.

In addition to the database and CSPI’s annual Outbreak Alert! report, CSPI’s staff researchers can run custom searches for journalists who need trendlines or historic information about foodborne illness. The database is regularly featured in poster sessions at the International Association of Food Protection, which published the methodology used to manage the database in its Food Protection Trends journal.

CSPI is working with members of Congress on legislation to modernize federal food safety laws. In addition, to help the FDA reduce the burden of foodborne outbreaks on consumers, CSPI and food industry groups have joined a Coalition for a Stronger FDA, which is lobbying Congress for more funds for staffing and inspections at the beleaguered agency.

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Contact Jeff Cronin (jcronin[at] or Ariana Stone (astone[at]