The number of food-borne illnesses in the United States has remained about the same in the past three years, and, in some cases, has been on the upswing, giving new urgency to efforts to overhaul the nation's food-safety system, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported in a study released Thursday.
WASHINGTON — The number of food-borne illnesses in the United States has remained about the same in the past three years, and, in some cases, has been on the upswing, giving new urgency to efforts to overhaul the nation’s food-safety system, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported in a study released Thursday.
“We need greater effort at all stages of movement of food in the food chain from farm to table” to prevent bacterial contamination, said Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the CDC’s Division of Food-borne, Bacterial and Mycotic Diseases.
Since 1996, the agency has been collecting data from 10 states on the number of people diagnosed with infections caused by eight bacteria and three parasites found in food. After registering drops in several of the illnesses until about 2004, the illnesses began rising again or have stayed constant. Those include illnesses caused by salmonella, vibrio, E. coli 0157, listeria and campylobacter.
Preliminary 2008 data show that infection rates for five food-borne illnesses exceeded national goals set by the CDC. In the case of salmonella, the national goal in 2008 was 7 illnesses for every 100,000 people, but the number was 16, more than twice the goal. The data did not include the ongoing national outbreak of salmonella illness linked to peanut products that began in late 2008 but peaked in early 2009, with nearly 700 people sickened and nine killed.
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Campylobacter and shigella, two kinds of bacterial infections, were the second and third most common food-borne illnesses, behind salmonella, occurring at rates of about 13 and 7 per 100,000, respectively.
Tauxe said several factors are behind the trend, including the intricacy of the U.S. food chain, the changing nature of bacteria and rising imports.
Children younger than 4 are particularly hard hit by food-borne pathogens, and adults older than 50 are most likely to be hospitalized and to die from related illnesses, the study found. Children can become ill from some of the bacteria simply by riding in shopping carts that are carrying raw poultry and meats, living with pet turtles or reptiles, or from day-care facilities, where other children or care providers are not adequately washing their hands, Tauxe said.
“We had been moving in the right direction, we had been reducing some of these key food-borne illnesses, and something potentially significant has stopped that progress or reversed that progress,” said Erik Olson, director of food and consumer product safety at the Pew Charitable Trusts, which pushes for tougher food-safety requirements for industry and stepped-up oversight by government. “In some cases, like salmonella, we’re double the national objective, and that says we’ve got a pretty serious issue here.”