1 In 10 People Get Sick From Foodborne Illness

Every year one of every 10 people worldwide, mostly children and the poor, suffer from some kind of foodborne disease.

The findings are based on eight years of research and data analysis by a World Health Organization task force charged with measuring the effect of foodborne diseases on populations around the globe. Says Arie Havelaar of the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida:

“The groups most adversely affected by the foodborne diseases are children and people in low-income regions of the world.

Of those who lost years to ill-health, disability, or early death, 40 percent were children under 5 years old, even though they constitute only 9 percent of the world population. Foodborne illnesses affect people on the African continent the most, followed by sub-regions of Southeast Asia and the eastern Mediterranean.

Estimating the burden of foodborne diseases is highly complex due to the many diseases involved,” Havelaar says. “The full extent of chemical and biological contamination of food, and its burden to society, is still unknown.”

31 Biggest Foodborne Hazards

The WHO created the Foodborne Disease Burden Epidemiology Reference Group (FREG) in 2007 to study global variation in the impact of foodborne disease. After considering the known disease-causing agents that can be transmitted by food, the group identified 31 hazards as the most necessary to include.


The WHO Report found that salmonella was a significant contributor to the global burden of foodborne disease

The group found that these 31 foodborne hazards caused 600 million foodborne illnesses and 420,000 deaths in 2010.

Results from the study indicate that up to 33 million healthy life years are lost annually due to foodborne diseases— a number on par with the “big three” infectious diseases— HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis— and air pollution, but clearly lower than the burden of dietary risk factors or unimproved water and sanitation.

Diarrheal disease agents were the most frequent causes of foodborne illness— particularly norovirus and Campylobacter spp. Non-typhoidal Salmonella enterica, also a diarrheal disease agent, is capable of causing blood poisoning in people with weakened immune systems and was a major cause of death among the pathogens chosen for the study.

Disability-Adjusted Life Years

Other major pathogens causing foodborne disease deaths included Salmonella Typhi, a subspecies of Salmonella enterica; Taenia solium, a tapeworm that comes from pork products; and the hepatitis A virus.

Says Brecht Devleesschauwer, an assistant scientist in the animal sciences department:

“We compiled information from a variety of data sources, including national surveillance systems and scientific literature, and used expert opinion and statistical modeling to fill data gaps.

“In addition to disease incidence and deaths, we also quantified the disease burden in terms of Disability-Adjusted Life Years— the number of healthy years of life lost due to illness and death— to facilitate ranking between causes of disease and across regions.”

A PLOS collection entitled “The World Health Organization Estimates of the Global Burden of Foodborne Diseases” presents the key results in a series of seven peer-reviewed papers, and also provides access to a large and growing number of reviews and description of methods that have been published in different peer-reviewed journals.

Havelaar AH, Kirk MD, Torgerson PR, Gibb HJ, Hald T, Lake RJ, et al. (2015)
World Health Organization Global Estimates and Regional Comparisons of the Burden of Foodborne Disease in 2010
PLoS Med 12(12): e1001923. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001923

Top Photo: David Goulding, Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, Wellcome Images