Foodborne illnesses decreased in 2020; could be result of pandemic factors

Foodborne illnesses in the United States decreased by 26 percent in 2020 compared with the average from 2017-19, according to a report released today.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that its FoodNet surveillance system identified 18,462 infections, including 4,788 hospitalizations and 118 deaths, according to the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report from the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP).

The decrease could be related to the coronavirus pandemic in more than one way, according to the researchers.

“The researchers speculated that pandemic-related behaviors, such as more handwashing, less international travel, and restaurant closures, may have contributed to the decrease in foodborne illnesses, but they note that changes in healthcare delivery and healthcare-seeking behaviors may have caused underreporting,” according to the report.

“While they also note that lab-testing practice changes may have had an effect, they found that the proportion of infections diagnosed by culture, compared with culture-independent diagnostic tests, was stable in 2020.

“The incidences of Salmonella Infantis, Cyclospora, and Yersinia infections, which had previously been increasing, did not change, possibly because of continuing pre-pandemic factors that led to rising incidences during previous years,” the researchers said. “The stable incidences despite the pandemic suggest that they might have increased otherwise. As pandemic-related restrictions are lifted, illnesses caused by these pathogens and by Hadar, the one Salmonella serotype with increasing incidence, should be closely monitored.”

All outbreak-associated Hadar cases were connected to one multistate outbreak involving backyard poultry contact, according to the data; more than one-third had to be hospitalized.

Campylobacter had the highest incidence with 14.4 infections per 100,000 people, followed by Salmonella with 13.3, and Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli with 3.6. All eight FoodNet-tracked pathogens had lower incidences, except for Yersinia and Cyclospora.

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