Fish and spices top list of imported foods that make us sick

Originally published on March 14, 2012 1:58 pm

Disease outbreaks with imported foods are on the rise, and fish and spices are the foods most likely to cause problems.

It's not that imported foods are any nastier than home-grown, according to a presentation today from researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It's that we're eating a lot more of them.

"Since the late 1990s the amount of food that's imported has doubled," says Hannah Gould, an epidemiologist at the CDC who's been studying imported food and food safety. "The number of outbreaks has mirrored that."

But outbreaks caused by imported foods tend to affect a lot more people, since they're sold in multiple states. Typically just one to two percent of food outbreaks affect people in more than one state, Gould says. But with imported foods, 25 percent of the 39 outbreaks affected more than one state.

And the CDC thinks that problems with imported food are under-reported, because people often don't know the source of the food.

More than three-quarters of seafood consumed in the United States is imported. And those imported fish are the biggest food safety problem — 45 percent of the outbreaks caused by imported food from 2005 to 2010 involved seafood, according to the new data from the CDC released today.

Spices may be good for the heart but they can also be risky; 15 percent of the imported food outbreaks were caused by spices. Imported spices often have pathogens on them because of they way they are harvested and dried.

The Salt recently reported on Salmonella contamination in organic celery seed. Many spices are irradiated to kill pathogens, but organic seeds often aren't.

Spice outbreaks are especially hard for disease detectives to track, Gould says, because people don't think of them as a discrete item in their diet. "They're part of other food," she tells The Salt.

She reported the results of the study today at the meeting of the International Conference on Emerging Infectious Diseases on Atlanta.

The new Food Safety Modernization Act calls for more inspection of imported food. But those inspections are still in the works.

Knowing that imported foods are a growing source of outbreaks shouldn't change how we eat — as long as we're taking the right precautions.

"Consumers should approach safety the way they always have," says Gould. "Cook, separate, chill — follow prevention measures."

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