By Chris Adams

There are 800 foodborne illness outbreaks every year in the United States, resulting in $3 billion in health-related costs.

They result in more than 48 million people becoming sick from contaminated foods – and 3,000 deaths.

Those startling statistics are what drive the system that monitors the safety of the U.S. food supply, led by officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Dr. Robert Tauxe, director of the division that monitors foodborne illnesses for the CDC, led National Press Foundation fellows through an overview of the nation’s food safety system.

Since 1996, the rates of infection for three pathogens – campylobacter, E. coli and listeria – have dropped. Meanwhile, salmonella infection rates are stable, and rates of infection of vibrio have increased.

Tauxe described a specific 2008 food outbreak of campylobacter in Alaska (the infection causes diarrheal illnesses and, more rarely, Guillain-Barré syndrome).

The investigation started with calls to local health officials. It eventually led to surveying local citizens to pinpoint potential causes, visiting a local pea farm and observing that sandhill cranes were defecating on the fields and the machinery used to harvest peas.

The harvest of those peas was stopped, and the peas were removed from grocery shelves. The outbreak promptly stopped.

Health officials also worked with the farmer to prevent such outbreaks in the future, and they suggested the use of chlorine in a wash to kill the pathogen before it got into the food supply. (They even tried “scare cranes” to keep the birds away from the fields, but that didn’t work.)