Americans are twice as likely to get food poisoning from food prepared at a restaurant than food prepared at home, according to a new study from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). Their analysis of “solved” outbreaks over a 10-year period found a total of 1,610 restaurant-linked outbreaks that sickened some 28,000 people, compared with 893 outbreaks traced to private homes that caused nearly 13,000 individual cases of illness.
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These ratios have been consistent for a number of years, says Caroline Smith DeWaal, CSPI’s food safety director. “It’s a myth that most food poisoning occurs from people cooking [in] their own homes. At least for reported outbreaks, the majority are linked to restaurant-prepared foods.”
There are some limitations to the data, she acknowledges. “Because restaurant outbreaks tend to be larger, there may be a number of smaller outbreaks in private homes that are not reaching the attention of public health officials. Unreported outbreaks are probably more likely to occur in private homes, but these would account for a smaller number of cases.”
The data is useful to help shape food safety messages aimed specifically at restaurant-based food handlers versus home cooks, says Smith DeWaal. “For example, we find that with food outbreaks linked to seafood in restaurants, the most common culprit is scombroid poisoning, which happens when the fish isn’t kept cold enough and a toxin forms in the flesh that cannot be cooked out. Home-linked seafood illness, on the other hand, is more often caused by ciguatera poisoning. “That may indicate that the fish may have been caught by an individual reef fishing,” says Smith DeWaal. “Data like this underscores the importance of food safety communications being tuned to the audience.”