Anybody with an internet connection can now track every foodborne illness recorded in the United States between 1998 and 2014.
A new tool unveiled today by the CDC seems to have been released just in time for the typically meat and dairy-ridden American holiday season, where highly disease-prone foods are consumed en masse during Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Given the breadth of data, the Foodborne Outbreak Online Database Tool (FOOD Tool) has collected some eye-opening statistics on bacteria that’s festered inside the United State’s voluminous food supply over the last 16 years.
The tool should serve as a game-changer for any of the one in six Americans routinely afflicted with maladies like salmonella, listeria, and bacillus after chowing down on poultry, dairy, red meat, and fish.
When viewed singularly through the CDC’s FOOD Tool, the United States seems like it might be something of a haven for foodborne illness: Since 1998, there have been approximately 18,211 disease outbreaks, 358,391 individual illnesses, 13,715 hospitalizations, and 318 deaths resulting from foodborne illness.
In actuality though, these numbers are quite low when viewed in the context of the United States’ total population.
Still, the CDC’s FOOD tool serves a far greater purpose than tabulating statistics for shock value. According to Antonio Vieira, a Doctoral Epidemiologist at the CDC and a chief researcher on the project, the website might help groups fend off large scale outbreaks.
“Public health officials, regulatory agencies, the food industry, they can certainly use this tool to create a controlled strategy along our food processing chain, and use that to target specific pathogens and foods,” Vieira tells Inverse.
Vieira is astute in noting that specificity is very closely aligned with the FOOD tool project: The website allows users to search for various foodborne outbreaks along the categories of food/ingredient, year of outbreak, state, bacterial etiology, and even if the food was prepared in a restaurant, private residence, summer camp, hospital, or prison, among other environments.
One can also track foodborne deaths, hospitalizations, illnesses, and outbreaks throughout the 16-year period, and visualize the occurrences via interactive charts, graphs, and tables.
Moving forward, Vieira thinks that the FOOD tool could certainly be put toward “hypothesis generation,” and in effect, might help researchers and the food industry understand where illnesses are cultivated, and how to combat them.
“Research groups, local public health departments or anybody involved in an outbreak investigation, could certainly use this tool for hypothesis generation, when they’re tracking a source of an ongoing outbreak or an outbreak that just happened,” Vieira says.
“People who have the ability to provide an intervention on the sources of those illnesses listed on this FOOD tool, may be able to cause a decrease in the number of illnesses,” that ultimately occur in the United States.