The Salmonella Index: The Best and Worst States for Food Poisoning

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A new State Food Poisoning Index analyzes which states are good at detecting foodborne illnesses—and which are failing

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The Atlantic


As last year's Salmonella outbreak and the unethical practices of egg mogul Jack DeCoster proved, our food supply is not always as safe as expected. One problem is that numerous systems exist for reporting foodborne illnesses on a state by state basis, and the difficulty of analyzing the data makes keeping food free from contamination a challenge. Obviously, we cannot mitigate or eliminate problems if we cannot evaluate them systematically.

That's why the Center for Science in the Public Interest has reviewed 10 years of records from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to determine which states do a good job of detecting outbreaks of foodborne illnesses. The newly released study is titled All Over the Map: A 10-Year Review of State Outbreak Reporting (PDF).

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The Center for Science in the Public Interest rated all 50 states and the District of Columbia, with grades of "A" through "F." The states with better records for reporting problems are, by the study's definition, those with better health care resources. (That may not be the only interpretation of the data, but it is the one the CSPI has elected to take.) Unfortunately, the study does not take into account state budgets for contaminated food detection and that the fact that there is no really accurate measurement of total foodborne illness outbreaks. The CSPI study is thus slightly flawed, but it is still the best of its kind.

Among the mitigating factors of the survey's results are that states with hotter climates tend to have more outbreaks because of the heat. These same states usually do poorly in the study. Several do a bad job, it seems, of detecting a problem which affects them more frequently than it does colder states.

The study also indicates that the ability of adjacent states to identify foodborne illnesses often varies significantly. Florida and Georgia get very different ratings, as do Maryland and West Virginia. Does that mean the successful states have more well-trained or well-funded disease control officials? That seems to be the case.

This analysis creates a State Food Poising Index. We have used the CSPI's survey to rank the states based on how well each detects foodborne problems and then "solves" the outbreaks by identifying the pathogens and the source of the illnesses. In the gallery above, we've listed the heroes and villains of the American food safety world: the seven A's and the 14 F's.

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Douglas A. McIntyre and Michael B. Sauter are editors of 24/7 Wall St., a Delaware-based financial news and opinion operation that produces content for sites including MarketWatch, DailyFinance, Yahoo! Finance, and TheStreet.com.

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