Food Poisoning Decline

Food poisoning from dangerous bacteria like E. coli and salmonella has dropped dramatically in the United States in just five years, suggesting that stepped-up measures to make the food supply safer are taking hold.  That's according to a new report.

Preliminary data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show substantial declines in the rates of illness from six of seven major types of foodborne bacteria from 1996 to 2001. The rate of E. coli fell 21 percent, salmonella 15 percent and listeria 35 percent. Shigella, campylobacter and yersinia dropped at least 35 percent each. Only vibrio, a germ that shows up in raw oysters, rose, climbing 83 percent.

Health officials said the improvement shows tougher regulations throughout the food system  including stricter inspections at slaughterhouses and in the seafood industry  are preventing tens of thousands of food poisoning infections a year. ``These data demonstrate that we are on the right track,'' Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said in Washington. ``Modern, science-based food inspection systems have contributed to our ability to control pathogens during food processing.''

In recent years, the CDC has estimated that 76 million Americans a year get food poisoning. The CDC did not give a new estimate Thursday. In 1997, the government began putting less emphasis on spot checks and instead requiring seafood plants to show proof of steps taken to prevent contamination. The regulations were quickly expanded to cover meat. Last year, the government imposed egg refrigeration requirements on supermarkets and restaurants. It also mandated that egg cartons be labeled with instructions for safe handling. Eggs and poultry are responsible for many cases of salmonella. Health officials also credited stricter regulation of fruit and vegetable juice and imported food.

On the consumer end, experts said the decline in food poisoning may mean Americans are paying better attention to food safety and taking such steps as cooking meat and eggs thoroughly. ``Preventing foodborne disease requires efforts all along the chain;  farm, processing, slaughter and in the kitchen,'' said the CDC's Dr. Robert Tauxe. ``I think that we are headed in the right direction.''

The food poisoning rates are calculations based in part on the number of infections reported in various parts of the country. They are collected through FoodNet, a network of laboratories around the country. FoodNet has expanded from just five states in 1996, covering about 14 million people, to nine states today, covering nearly 38 million people.

Labs in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, Oregon and Tennessee report to the network. The network relies on laboratory-diagnosed infections. Someone who became sick but never saw a doctor or someone who was diagnosed by a doctor who never sought a lab culture would not show up in the network. But health officials said they were confident the numbers represented a real decline in infections because other studies show there has been little change in how likely food poisoning victims are to seek treatment.

High-profile infections still occur, such as a 1999 E. coli outbreak that sickened 300 people in Illinois and was traced to beef served at a party. The government wants to see the numbers fall even further to meet targets it has set for 2010, especially salmonella, which is still causing infections at more than twice the target rate. The infection rate is 15.1 cases per 100,000 people. The target is 6.8. And health officials are somewhat skeptical that the E. coli decline will continue. While infections have dropped 21 percent since 1996, the course has been erratic,  rising and falling from year to year.

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