Lax Hand Washing Helps Drive Many Foodborne Illnesses

THURSDAY, Aug. 12 (HealthDay News) — Poor hand washing habits by food handlers and the contamination of food by animal feces are among the prime reasons Americans get sickened by foodborne germs, according to a new government report.

Researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pored over data on the nearly 1,100 reported foodborne disease outbreaks in the United States in 2007. These outbreaks resulted in more than 21,000 illnesses and 18 deaths, according to the report released Thursday in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

One foodborne agent was confirmed as the cause of 497 (45 percent) of the outbreaks, while more than one foodborne agent was confirmed responsible in 12 of the outbreaks. A foodborne agent wasn’t identified in more than half of the outbreaks, the CDC said.

In cases where a foodborne agent was identified, norovirus was the most common cause (39 percent), followed by salmonella (27 percent). Infected food handlers who don’t wash their hands well after using the toilet are the most common cause of norovirus outbreaks.

Salmonella outbreaks are most often caused when food is contaminated with animal feces. Salmonella contamination usually involves animal-related foods such as beef, poultry, milk and eggs, but vegetables and other foods can also be contaminated, the CDC said. Thorough cooking kills salmonella.

Of the 235 outbreaks where one type of food was identified, the largest number of illnesses listed poultry (691 illnesses), beef (667 illnesses) and leafy vegetables (590 illnesses) as the cause, said the CDC team.

“Knowing more about what types of foods and foodborne agents have caused outbreaks can help guide public health and the food industry in developing measures to effectively control and prevent infections and help people stay healthy,” Chris Braden, acting director of the CDC’s Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases, said in an agency news release.

More information

The U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has more about foodborne diseases.