THURSDAY, April 9, 2009 (HealthDay News) -- After "important declines" seen in previous years, the incidence of many foodborne illnesses in the United States has leveled off since 2004, U.S. health officials announced Thursday.
"Progress has plateaued," Dr. Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the Division of Foodborne, Bacterial and Mycotic Diseases at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said during a teleconference. "This indicates that further measures are needed to prevent more foodborne illness."
"We need better safety practices as food moves from the farm to the table," Tauxe said.
Dr. David Acheson, associate commissioner for foods at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said that the finding "underscores the need for a change in approach to address safety problems around foods and really focus on how to prevent these problems in the first place."
Preliminary data from FoodNet, a CDC surveillance network that collects information on foodborne illness from 10 states, indicate that diagnosed and reported illnesses from an array of bacteria -- campylobacter, cryptosporidium, cyclospora, listeria, shiga toxin-producing escherichia coli (STEC) O157, salmonella, shigella, vibrio and yersinia -- have basically stayed the same since 2004.
Children younger than 4 and adults 50 and older appeared to be at highest risk, according to the CDC report.
The FDA and other government agencies involved in food safety have been under increasing fire with two high-profile salmonella outbreaks in recent months and other major incidents involving salmonella and other pathogens the last few years.
This has led to calls for major reforms at the FDA and related agencies.
Acheson said Thursday that the FDA has received more resources and authority, allowing it to hire at least 150 people on the food side of its operation, including inspectors and investigators, as well as about 30 additional scientists and consumer safety officers to aid in compliance efforts.
"The system needs to be modernized with more emphasis on preventive controls," Acheson conceded.
Part of the problem is that as food supply chains get longer and global distribution networks more complex, there are simply more opportunities for things to go wrong, officials stated. If a manufacturer or distributor has wide reach, a single ingredient can potentially infect large numbers of people.
But proper preparation, handling and cooking on the part of the consumer can greatly lessen the risk of foodborne illness, Tauxe said.
Risk factors for contracting foodborne illness include such things as riding in a shopping cart next to raw meat, visiting or living on a farm, living with reptiles and attending daycare, not to mention undercooking foods.
"Breast-feeding is a protective factor and should be encouraged," Tauxe added.
U.S. government agencies have more on food safety.