May 1/Gainesville, Fla/Gainesville Sun-- Researchers at the University of Florida's Emerging Pathogens Institute have identified for the first time the 10 riskiest combinations of foods and illness-causing microorganisms.

The combinations are responsible for nearly 3.9 million illnesses, about 30,000 hospitalizations and 765 deaths per year in the U.S., according to a report.

Researchers say they hope the list will lead regulators to concentrate on potentially contaminated foods that pose the greatest threat to public health.

“We don't want to freak people out, but we do want to point to the fact that a lot of people are getting sick and we want to minimize the public health risk if we can,” said Michael Batz, lead author of the report and head of food safety programs at the Emerging Pathogens Institute.

The list marks the first time foods and pathogens that are the greatest risk to the public have been compiled together, said Dr. Glenn Morris, report co-author and institute director. The report found the top 10 riskiest combinations cause more than $8 billion in annual economic loss in the United States.

The list includes pathogens associated with meat, dairy, produce and complex foods comprising multiple, non-meat ingredients. Poultry contaminated with campylobacter bacteria topped the list, causing more than 608,000 illnesses annually at a cost of nearly $1.3 billion. Salmonella appears four times: in association with poultry, produce, eggs and complex foods.

The rest of the list includes pathogens that get less press in connection with food, such as toxoplasma gondii. Although toxoplasma is typically associated with the handling of cats and kitty litter, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that half of associated illnesses are foodborne. Toxoplasma made the list twice, in connection with pork and beef.

Morris said there are steps the public can take to avoid the consumption of contaminated foods, such as following safety standards including the proper cooking of meats. However, he said there are risks beyond their control, highlighting the need for effective food-safety regulations.

“For some of these things, there really is a need for government regulation,” Morris said.

The Food Safety Modernization Act, signed into law in January, is intended to shift the focus of regulators from responding to food contamination to preventing it. In addition to giving the FDA authority to order food recalls, it requires the agency to establish science-based standards for food production that minimize the risk of illness or death.

However, Morris said funding is needed to implement the law. Last month, lawmakers debated that funding before reaching agreement in the measure that avoided the government shutdown. Given the continued budget crunch faced by the federal government, Morris said the list provides a way to allocate limited resources.

“This should serve as a guide,” he said. He said the list also should help emphasize public-health messages, such as the danger of listeria monocytogenes to pregnant women. The list includes listeria in connection with both deli meat and dairy products. The latter is because of outbreaks associated with soft cheeses made from unpasteurized milk, such as certain Mexican cheeses.

The list represents a long overdue approach to food safety, said Douglas Archer, associate dean for research at the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. Archer was not an author but reviewed the report and served with Morris on a committee to review the Food and Drug Administration's role in ensuring safe food.

Archer said regulations currently focus on violations of the law based on past history, but that resources would be better spent on problems that put human health at risk. The agency will never have enough inspectors to catch every foodborne illness, he said, so a risk-based approach makes more sense.

“You can't inspect away foodborne illnesses,” he said.

Food producers have to be diligent in ensuring food safety, but the public also has to play a role, said Frankie Hall, director of agricultural policy for the Florida Farm Bureau. Producers can do a good job only to have the person who takes the food home handle it improperly, he said. “There is responsibility for food safety when you get it back to the home.”

Batz said he hopes the list doesn't inspire a “What am I going to avoid at the supermarket” kind of perspective. Rather, he said, the list is meant to illustrate the need to develop a better national strategy in addressing the issue of food safety.

“We have multiple federal agencies, and we have all these hazards,” he said, “and we have limited budgets and a complicated food system.”

From the May 4, 2011, Prepared Foods' Daily News.