RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
It seems like we've been hearing a lot about unsafe food these days. Just this year, there have been recalls for romaine lettuce, some varieties of the snack Goldfish and a Taco Bell-brand queso dip. McDonald's stopped selling salads at thousands of locations for a while because there was a risk of getting sick. But does all that mean our food supply is generally less safe? NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: On a Thursday afternoon in late June, Matt Arteaga was at his office in Danville, Ill., when he began to feel sick. It came on quickly. It kind of felt like the flu.
MATT ARTEAGA: The chills and body aches and severe cramping and sharp pain in my stomach.
AUBREY: After a test revealed he had an infection caused by cyclospora, a parasite, he had a lot of questions. Where did he get it, for starters? His doctor could not answer this, but did report his case to the Illinois Department of Public Health. Nirav Shah is the director.
NIRAV SHAH: In early July, our team of disease detectives observed an uptick in reports of cyclospora that were being submitted to us.
AUBREY: And they would soon find out that nearby states saw the same. Now, to figure out what the source of the cyclospora might be, health officials got in touch with Matt Arteaga and others who'd gotten sick and asked them to make a list of every food they'd eaten before they got sick. Matt Arteaga says he used his bank records to help jog his memory.
ARTEAGA: What we did was, because I pay with my debit card all the time, just went through every restaurant that I had eaten in the two weeks prior to getting sick. And I had a salad at McDonald's three times.
AUBREY: Turned out many of the people sickened with cyclospora also reported they'd eaten salads at McDonald's. Here's Director Shah again.
SHAH: We got on the phone with McDonald's, advised them of what we recommended and made sure that we notified the public immediately.
AUBREY: The chain halted sales of salads at about 3,000 locations until they could switch to a different lettuce supplier. And FDA testing confirmed the presence of cyclospora in an unused package of lettuce that had been distributed to the chain. This added to the evidence that the salads had been the likely source. All told, about 500 people in 16 states got sick. Now, this may not sound like a success story given all the sickness. But if it had happened 20 years ago, could've been worse. Shah says the outbreak may never have been detected.
SHAH: Because the test that doctors use to diagnose cyclospora wasn't even approved by the FDA until May of 2014.
AUBREY: This would have made it harder to identify the parasite and to trace the sicknesses back to a common source. So in a case like this, McDonald's salads may never have been identified. And the chain would not have been able to pull them from the market to prevent more people from getting sick.
SHAH: But we're now in a situation where people know if I go to my doctor, I can get tested. I can get a diagnosis. And as a result of that, they report these conditions, and now we can actually link up what's going on.
AUBREY: It doesn't always work out, but Shah says the better testing, combined with newer techniques that make it possible to get high-resolution DNA fingerprints of foodborne pathogens, makes a big difference.
SHAH: Technology has been a game-changer for foodborne outbreaks.
AUBREY: So this takes us back to a key question. Is our food supply any more or less safe than it used to be? Shah says despite hearing more about outbreaks...
SHAH: Our food system today is probably the safest it has ever been in the history of the United States or in the world.
AUBREY: Lots of experts I spoke to shared this view, including several academic food scientists. But of course there's still room for improvement. The CDC estimates about 1 in 6 people get a foodborne illness each year. That's millions of sicknesses, and the CDC's Matthew Wise says the number of people who get sick is fairly steady. But with improved surveillance and technology, he says it's possible to detect more outbreaks.
MATTHEW WISE: This year's been sort of a bumper year. We've had a lot of outbreaks that have been detected and investigated. And so I think we'll have to wait and see for the next couple of years whether this becomes a new normal or whether this just happened to be sort of a blip on the radar.
MARTIN: Allison is here in the studio to talk a little bit more about this and her reporting. So Allison, what we're hearing is not that there's necessarily more people getting sick from foodborne illnesses. It's just that...
AUBREY: That's right.
MARTIN: ...We are able to detect it more often than not.
AUBREY: That's right. This seems to be the case. I mean, it may sound like a paradox, but think about what we just heard from Matt Arteaga and the cyclospora outbreak. On paper, cyclospora cases are way up in Illinois. But part of this is that they're catching them. They're detecting the cases that in the past, they would not have known existed. And that's due to improved testing.
MARTIN: Health officials are saying that our food supply is as safe as it's ever been. But I mean, clearly, there are still lots of people who get sick. So how do we all avoid...
MARTIN: ...Becoming one of them?
AUBREY: Right. Well, you know, when we cook in our own kitchens, we have a lot of control, right? We're told to cook meats to a proper temperature. This kills pathogens. We're told to wash our produce, not cut fruits and vegetables on the same tray that we use to cut raw meat.
AUBREY: But when we eat out or buy prepared foods, we hand over that control.
MARTIN: And that's where a lot of the outbreaks are happening?
AUBREY: Well, in addition to the salads, if you look at the outbreaks this summer, there were several linked to fresh-prepared foods. There was a vegetable tray recall and a separate outbreak linked to sliced or precut melons. So think of it this way. Every time a food is handled or processed, there is an opportunity for contamination. Now, the risk is very small. I mean, millions and millions of people eat these foods and don't get sick. But if you've got small children or elderly or immunocompromised people in your home, you may want to think about which foods you buy.
MARTIN: So what about when we're eating out? What about people who eat in restaurants? Anything you can do to limit your risk there?
AUBREY: Now, this may come as a surprise, but the most common foodborne illness is not the bacteria we tend to hear about, such as salmonella or E. coli. The most common is norovirus. It's sometimes referred to as the cruise ship virus because clusters of people...
AUBREY: ...Get sick all at once. Now, a common way people get it is from sick workers in restaurants. So say a line cook or a server shows up sick, contaminates the food. You're the unlucky person served that food. You can get sick. And unfortunately, there's just not much you can do about that.
MARTIN: What about washing our hands? We hear all the time how if we wash our hands, that can help.
AUBREY: Too late. It's too late. Now, if the sick worker washed their hands, that could help. But the best thing is if that sick worker stayed home. Now, some restaurants and chains are better than others at encouraging sick workers to stay home by giving them paid sick leave.
MARTIN: Right. NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thanks so much.
AUBREY: Thanks, Rachel.
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