Georgians are at greater risk of contracting salmonella food poisoning today than a decade ago, according to figures from the federal Centers for Disease Control.
The figures, reviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, fly in the face of promises by state and federal health officials to improve food safety following national salmonella outbreaks traced to Georgia food producers.
Last month, authorities announced federal charges against officials of a south Georgia peanut processor linked to a 2008-2009 salmonella outbreak that sickened 700 people nationally and killed nine.
The state was linked to another national outbreak in 2007, when salmonella from ConAgra Foods in Sylvester, the maker of Peter Pan peanut butter, sickened more than 600 people.
State and federal health officials don’t know why Georgia’s rate of reported salmonella infections jumped by almost half from 2000 to 2011. The number of reported cases, not adjusted for population growth, jumped even more: by 77 percent.
Those increases are at odds with national figures, which show little significant change in the incidence of salmonella over the same period.
A state official suggested several possible reasons for Georgia’s poor performance. It could stem from “better detection mechanisms, the improper handling of food, or even the warmer climate experienced here in the southern states,” said Mary Kathryn Yearta, spokeswoman for the state Agriculture Department.
But food safety watchdogs saw different causes: a food production culture that stresses profits over safety, creating the need for greater regulation and enforcement.
“I think it’s linked to weak enforcement,” said Tony Corbo of the advocacy group Food & Water Watch. “This is not a food-safety culture. Everything is based on the bottom line, produce as much as you can.”
Salmonella is the most prevalent food-borne illness, sickening an estimated 1 million people a year and killing about 400, according to the CDC. The agency estimates that for every confirmed case of salmonella, 29 more cases go unreported. Young children, elderly persons, and those with weakened immune systems are more likely to develop severe illness from the infection.
Between 2000 and 2011, Georgia’s rate of salmonella cases rose from 18.2 per 100,000 people to 26.8. The annual number of reported salmonella cases rose from 1,491 to 2,632.
In addition, Georgia routinely ranked at or near the top for salmonella among the 10 states that the CDC reviews for its annual FoodNet survey of food-borne illness.
For one Georgian who’s suffered through the days of salmonella cramps and fever, those numbers brought unpleasant memories and disquieting questions.
Jennifer Brown, 30, of Sandy Springs, said the pain got so bad, “I felt like something was alive in my stomach.”
After five days of discomfort, during two of which she missed work, she went to the doctor and tested positive for the pathogen. She suspects supermarket sushi was the culprit.
Brown was surprised that the numbers are going up in Georgia.
“You would think it would be the opposite,” said Brown, who works in advertising. “I wonder what it is about Georgia?”
The state Department of Public Health, which tracks the prevalence of salmonella, was at a loss to explain the rise.
“It would be great if we could understand it,” said Dr. Melissa Tobin-D’Angelo, a state epidemiologist, told the AJC.
The agency, in a written statement to the AJC, suggested that the numbers may reflect better testing and reporting rather than an actual increase.
CDC officials, however, said they are confident in the consistency of reporting over the years from the 10 states in the FoodNet system. The other states in the system include Tennessee, New Mexico, Oregon, Minnesota, Connecticut, Maryland, and parts of California, Colorado and New York.
As for efforts to combat the illness, state and federal officials said they are toughening regulations and reviews, with several food safety initiatives expected this year.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which oversees plant-based foods, is reviewing two proposed rules written under the new Food Safety Modernization Act. The rules would create safety standards for the production of produce on farms, and require food companies to write food safety plans.
“(The new law) shifts the FDA’s food safety focus from reaction and response to prevention,” said FDA spokeswoman Theresa Eisenman.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which polices animal-based foods, revised its performance standards for processing chickens and turkeys in 2011. The FDA has also expanded its sampling of raw poultry products.
At the state level, after the peanut-borne outbreaks of 2007-2009, Georgia adopted the Sanitary Activity for Food-Processing Enterprise Act. It requires food processors to alert the state within 24 hours when tainted food is discovered, and it made it a felony for food processors to knowingly release contaminated food to the public.
The state Agriculture Department created a special team of inspectors to focus on food-processing plants and wrote detailed guidelines for the inspection of peanut processors.
Despite such efforts, salmonella won’t be easy to defeat, said Olga Henao, a CDC researcher on food-borne illnesses. There are 2,500 types of the pathogen, which can be transmitted through numerous farm-raised animals, reptiles, processed food and raw produce.
The nation as a whole may look better than Georgia, but that’s scant comfort, Henao said. “Overall we’ve seen very little change,” she said, “and that’s very concerning.”
Staff writer Jeffry Scott contributed to this article.