SEA ISLAND, GA. — As technology has improved and the food production system has become safer, the science to identify pathogens and connect incidents has led to an increase in the identification of foodborne illness outbreaks, said Arthur Liang, M.D., M.P.H., senior adviser for food safety at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. Liang delivered his presentation on Oct. 19 at the North American Millers’ Association annual meeting held at The Cloister, Sea Island.

His presentation, “A Progress Paradox: How Food Safety Gets Better, But Companies Feel Worse,” provided historical context to the fight against foodborne illness along with the successes and setbacks along the way.

“Infectious disease mortality has dropped dramatically in the last 100 plus years,” Dr. Liang said. “But there is still a lot of foodborne illness.”  

While the overall system is much safer, the identification and reporting of foodborne illness has increased in part because formerly invisible outbreaks are now visible due to better reporting by the public, improved pathogen identification technology, the emergence of the genome sequencing technology and communication among the medical community.

Dr. Liang said 80% of the instances of foodborne disease are caused by the norovirus, Salmonella, clostridium perfringens, campylobacter and staphylococcal.

“I have heard that one of your challenges is peanut allergies,” he said. “It does look indeed like peanut allergy has increased.”

The information Dr. Liang presented showed that since the 1990s the prevalence of self-reported peanut allergies in the U.S. population has gone from below 1% to around 2%.

“If you have 2% of the U.S. population, that is a lot of people,” he said.

At several points throughout his presentation Dr. Liang emphasized the importance of discussion and engagement between the public and private sectors. He underscored the importance of the food industry and government coming to an understanding of what the true risk of foodborne illness is.

Dr. Liang said he is long-term optimistic on public/private communications.

“I think the public sector will figure out that we can’t regulate to zero tolerance,” he said.

He finished his presentation by imploring the assembled millers to talk to the public sector, set up communications channels and have regular visits.