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Fish and Shellfish Top CSPI Outbreak List

US - As Thanksgiving approaches, the Center for Science in the Public Interest has called on the Obama Administration to make food safety a top priority.

Outbreaks involving produce, including E. coli on spinach, and Salmonella on jalapeno peppers and fresh tomatoes grabbed headlines this year and last. But when you look at relative rates of outbreak-related illnesses caused by various foods, fish and shellfish turn out to cause more sicknesses per bite than any other category. Turkey is linked to three times as many illnesses as chicken—no doubt in part because many harried holiday cooks might not as be as familiar with how to safely thaw and cook a whole big bird, or to store the leftovers

"While many food safety disasters in the home can be avoided with careful handling, those coming to the table from farms and factories here and abroad have become far too frequent over the last few years," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest. "Instead of relying on recalls and warnings, the Food and Drug Administration should focus on preventing these problems from ever reaching consumers."

According to the foodborne-illness data crunched by CSPI in its annual Outbreak Alert! report, a pound of fish and shellfish is 29 times more likely to cause illness than the safest food category, a pound of dairy foods. After dairy, produce is the second safest category of food, followed by pork.

Even when not adjusted for consumption, CSPI's Outbreak Alert! database has more seafood outbreaks, 1,140, than for any other category of food. Fin fish, such as tuna, grouper, mahi mahi, and salmon, were linked to 694 of those outbreaks; mollusks, including oysters, clams, and mussels were linked to 175 outbreaks; and the rest linked to shrimp, lobster, or foods such as crab cakes and tuna burgers. While Vibrio bacteria and noroviruses contributed to those, naturally occurring toxins such as scombrotoxin and ciguatoxin account for a plurality of seafood outbreaks.

"Our food safety system is based on antiquated laws, including ones that are more than a hundred years old," DeWaal said. "A hundred years ago we weren’t importing millions of pounds of seafood from Asia, nor were we repacking Mexican tomatoes and shipping them to 50 states. Modernizing this system should be an urgent priority of the Obama administration, to reduce outbreaks and illnesses from food and restore consumer confidence."

Outbreak Alert! includes nearly 5,800 outbreaks that occurred between 1990 and 2006 for which both the food and the pathogen are identified. The data set has been published by CSPI for the last 10 years, and can be reviewed on CSPI's website. Because foodborne illness is dramatically underreported, because much foodborne illness does not occur in outbreaks, and because it is so difficult to prove which food caused an outbreak, CSPI's data represents just the tip of a very large iceberg: Each year, according to the CDC, foodborne illness sickens 76 million and kills 5,000 Americans.

CSPI reminds home cooks to allow plenty of time to thaw whole turkeys in the refrigerator—about 24 hours for every four to five pounds—and to not let germs on the turkey grow by thawing on the counter. Cook whole turkeys to 165 degrees F as measured by a meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh and be sure to refrigerate leftovers within 2 hours after cooking to keep them safe.

Further Reading

- You can view the full report by clicking here.