Despite the myriad of technological advances that claim to have make food safer and that have practically eradicated incidence of tapeworm and botulism, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believe that the average American is now more likely to contract food poisoning today than they were fifty years ago.

According to the agency's figures, incidences of serious gastrointestinal illness have increased by 34% since 1948 and now the US records that food poisoning is responsible for 5,000 deaths, 325,000 hospitalisations and 76 million illnesses every year. Disease researchers have also expressed concern that while cases of less serious bacteria such as salmonella are on the decline, more damaging illnesses caused by, for example, E coli infection, have doubled since 1996.

Food variety brings new bacteria

The increasing cases can be attributed in part to better reporting by sufferers, but the reasons for this plethora of poisonings is manifold, say experts. Improper handling of food may be a problem, but one major reason concerns what we eat. Increasing consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables can bring with it increasing exposure to bacteria or viruses. Many assume that meat and poultry are the major culprits of food poisoning incidents, but these products are generally well policed by the USDA and The General Accounting Office estimates that 85% of food poisoning comes from the popular US dietary staples: fruits, vegetables, seafood and cheeses. Precooked food also harbours more bacteria than more traditional home cooking.

Consumers often first to test product safety

The variety of foods has increased beyond the regulatory scope of the national food safety watchdog, the Food and Drug Administration. More food is subject to post-retail recalls now than in any time over the last ten years, and officials admit that they simply don't have the time or resources to inspect every food item.

Since 1997, the body of 113 federal inspectors that deal with food imports has increased by just three employees. Foreign food items meanwhile have increased by 50% in a similar time scheme. Little surprise then that the FDA can only actually inspect less than 1% of all imported foods.

Onus on industry for self-regulation

Indeed, the entire FDA employees less than a tenth of the food safety inspectors under the umbrella of the USDA, and the onus is falling increasingly on food manufacturers to keep products safe. Currently, just over 400 FDA inspectors police over 57,000 food processing plants across the US, leaving the average plant subject to inspection once every eight years.

The industry is adamant that things are safer than they have ever been, with better surveillance and traceability speeding up the process of finding the cause of any poisoning outbreak. Smaller companies cannot always afford to run safety tests themselves however, and some maintain that FDA checks are essential. Furthermore, as waves of consolidation turn the smaller companies into giant corporations, the reach of contaminated food is spreading.

Not every scientist agrees that food poisoning has increased since the immediate post war years, but as technological systems improve, any food related illnesses are becoming less excusable.