Does the majority of foodborne illness happen in the home?

Where does foodborne illness happen?

Usually people notice it sitting or kneeling at the toilet.

But for 10 years, various groups had made claims that most foodborne illness happens in the home. It’s the consumer’s fault.

It happened again today.

In an otherwise innocuous press release stressing the importance of handwashing and the creation of a group in Canada featuring “leading experts in the fields of microbiology, virology, paediatrics, infectious disease, public health and education,” the leading experts rhetorically asked, did you know,

“The vast majority of food-borne (sic) illnesses occur because food was not handled or cooked properly and 80% of the cases happen in the home?”

There is no basis to this statement. After years of irritation, we’re finally getting the paper together to review the available data.

But until that’s available, this is what I wrote 10 years ago:

"Research shows that improper food handling in the home causes a major proportion of foodborne illnesses."

That line has been repeated so many times, even moreso since the launch of the FightBac food safety consumer education program last Nov., that I had to know: what was the research.

My associate Sarah Grant first e-mailed the Canadian Food Inspection Agency via their web site, because the federal agriculture Minister had used the line a few weeks ago. No luck there. We were referred to Health Canada.

After a few messages, a couple of tables with an explanatory note arrived. At last, the data.

Except it showed that known cases happen pretty much everywhere except the home.

A bit overstated. But still, the data sucked.

First, was a table representing known foodborne illnesses in Canada from 1990 to 1993. In March 1999, the U.S. Centres for Disease Control published active foodborne surveillance data from the end of 1998. Weekly updates are on their web site. The best we can do in Canada is 1993, and I have to buy the publication. Health Canada says they have plans to publish their data on the web … soon.

Of the 23,322 known cases of foodborne illness in Canada between 1990 and 1993, 18,450 or 79 per cent were of unknown origin. Of the cases of known microbiological origin, 70 per cent were traced to food service; 11 per cent were traced to the home; 4 per cent were retail in origin.

The second table contained data on foodborne illness cases due to mishandling. Of the cases of known microbiological origin, 61 per cent were due to mishandling at the food service level; 11 per cent in the home; 6 per at retail and 6 per cent on farms or dairies.

I remain unconvinced.

Our surveillance capabilities are weak; certainly they are not strong enough to support statements such as, "research shows that improper food handling in the home causes a major proportion of foodborne illnesses." We simply do not know. Money was allocated to bolster Health Canada’s surveillance capacity in the last federal budget so maybe we will see improvements … soon.

More to come …