08/10/2012 01:51 pm ET Updated Oct 10, 2012

In the Public Interest : Is CDC Burying their Latest Data on Foodborne Illness?

Late in the evening on Friday, July 27, without providing the usual notice to consumer groups or food safety advocates, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released its annual report of foodborne illness data for 2011. Why the secrecy?

Perhaps it's because the data shows that the government is falling far short of its goals for reducing foodborne illnesses. The number of Americans falling ill from foodborne pathogens remained steady in 2011, continuing a long trend -- these numbers have held steady or worsened slightly each year since the mid-2000s. In addition, 2011 saw some high-profile failures, including the Listeria outbreak linked to Colorado-grown cantaloupes that killed 33 people.

The new data shows that there were over 18,000 confirmed cases of foodborne illnesses in 2011. 67 people died, included one child under five years old. This is essentially the same as in 2010, when there were 68 deaths. And 2012 isn't shaping up to be any better. A quick search of the news for the past two months turns up warnings on shell fish, a multistate outbreak of salmonella due to raw tuna and 33 people sickened by beef with salmonella.

These disappointing new numbers are particularly unsettling when you remember that the new Food Safety and Modernization Act was signed into law in January 2011 to prevent problems like these before they lead to illness or death. Unfortunately, these new rules have been stalled for nearly a year now with the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). The three most important rules stuck in limbo are:

  • Produce Safety Standards -- these establish standards for irrigation water, manure, worker-hygiene, and wildlife that may be sources of contamination of fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Rules for the "Foreign Supplier Verification Program" -- part of a comprehensive import safety system, which makes importers responsible for the safety of the foods they import.
  • Prevention-based Requirements for Food Companies -- food companies will be required to develop food-safety plans that will identify possible sources of contamination and specify actions to address them.

Despite the continued health threat posed by foodborne illnesses, these rules are languishing in OIRA without explanation for the delay. Even the Grocery Manufacturers Association has requested that these rules be released.

We applauded President Obama wholeheartedly when he spoke in 2009 as both a father and the President, emphasizing that, "at a bare minimum, we should be able to count on our government keeping our kids safe when they eat peanut butter." But unfortunately, looking at all the recent food recalls and incidents of foodborne illness, Americans can't count on our food to be safe. It's time for President Obama to come through on that promise and make sure these new food safety rules are released right away.