Are catered meals the biggest source of foodborne illness in America?

In the wake of several high-profile outbreaks of foodborne illness at catered events – 180 people barfing after 3 events prepared by an unlicensed caterer in North Dakota last year, and 57 people barfing at events at an Illinois catering hall this monthMSNBC reports today catered events make more people sick than outbreaks involving meals at restaurants or prepared at home.

Uh-huh.

The story says that new figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control “show that illnesses from reported outbreaks of food poisoning linked to catering outpace those from restaurants or home cooking. 36 illnesses per catering outbreak; 13 at restaurants or home-prepared meals.

Between 1998 and 2008, there were 833 outbreaks of foodborne illness traced to caterers, incidents that sparked 29,738 illnesses, 345 hospitalizations and 4 deaths, according to Dana Cole, a CDC researcher.

Proportionately, the outbreaks from catering are higher than the 22,600 illnesses from 1,546 reported home cooking outbreaks and the 101,907 illnesses from 7,921 outbreaks in restaurants and delis.

“Partly that’s because at larger banquets and weddings the number of people served tend to be larger,” Cole said.

Uh-huh.

I hadn’t heard about this new data, and can’t comment on its validity because it hasn’t, as far as I can tell, been published anywhere. One, Dana Cole, and a couple of others from CDC are scheduled to present results next Tuesday at the annual meeting of the International Association for Food Protection in a talk entitled, Sources and settings: contaminated food vehicles and the settings of foodborne disease outbreaks.

Usually the media stuff happens after the data is at least presented, and preferably after the paper is peer-reviewed and published. I look forward to reading the scoring system the researchers uses: if spinach is contaminated on a farm with E. coli O157:H7 and makes people barf after eating at a catered event, a restaurant, or a home, how is that scored? And does it matter?

Jacob, C.J. and Powell, D.A. 2009. Where does foodborne illness happen—in the home, at foodservice, or elsewhere—and does it matter? Foodborne Pathogens and Disease, 6(9): 1121-1123.
http://www.liebertonline.com/doi/abs/10.1089/fpd.2008.0256

??Foodservice professionals, politicians, and the media are often cited making claims as to which locations most often expose consumers to foodborne pathogens. Many times, it is implied that most foodborne illnesses originate from food consumed where dishes are prepared to order, such as restaurants or in private homes. The manner in which the question is posed and answered frequently reveals a speculative bias that either favors homemade or foodservice meals as the most common source of foodborne pathogens. Many answers have little or no scientific grounding, while others use data compiled by passive surveillance systems. Current surveillance systems focus on the place where food is consumed rather than the point where food is contaminated. Rather than focusing on the location of consumption—and blaming consumers and others—analysis of the steps leading to foodborne illness should center on the causes of contamination in a complex farm-to-fork food safety system.