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U.S. Sees Sharp Drop in Food Poisoning

Illness decline since 1996 hastened in 2003, officials say

THURSDAY, April 29, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- The U.S. government on Thursday reported substantial declines in the incidence of important food-borne infections since 1996 and, more dramatically, between 2002 and 2003.

Perhaps most significantly, the number of infections from Escherichia coli 0157:H7, which can be fatal, dropped 36 percent between 2002 and 2003. Since 1996, the overall incidence of infection from this pathogen has gone down 42 percent.

Infections from other sources including Campylobacter, Cryptosporidium parvum, Salmonella, and Yersinia enterocolitica also declined.

"The decline in E. coli is very promising, although it is too soon to know if it will be a sustained decrease," Dr. Robert Tauxe, chief of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Foodborne and Diarrheal Diseases Branch, said at a news conference. "We have seen much year-to-year variation in this organism's infection patterns, but the decline we observed between 2002 and 2003 was statistically significant for the first time."

"We are showing real progress toward meeting our Healthy People 2010 goals," added Janice Oliver, deputy director of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. "While the numbers show a decrease, we need a further reduction."

Food-borne pathogens are responsible for an estimated 76 million illnesses annually in the United States, resulting in 323,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths, Tauxe said.

In 1996, the CDC, the FDA, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture set up Foodnet, a surveillance network, to monitor the incidence of these illnesses. Foodnet now operates out of nine sites and monitors about 14 percent of the American population -- 41.5 million people.

The latest data from Foodnet, which appears in the April 30 issue of the CDC publication Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, find that, since 1996, Campylobacter infections have dropped 28 percent and Salmonella infections have gone down 17 percent.

At the same time, Yersinia infections have decreased 49 percent, and Cryptosporidium infections have fallen 51 percent.

The incidence of Listeria did not decline in 2003, although it had decreased over the previous four years. Similarly, the incidence of Salmonella enteritidis has not changed significantly since 1996.

Experts attribute the declines to several different factors. "There have been efforts to educate consumers, efforts to improve the safety of [food] processing all along the way, and more and more efforts that are focused on what happens in the actual farm or field," Tauxe said.

The new report pointed specifically to the Pathogen Reduction/Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) systems implemented by the government in 1997 in the meat and poultry slaughter and processing plants. The 2003 decline of human E. coli 0157:H7 infections, the article stated, followed a notice sent to manufacturers of raw ground beef products to reevaluate their HACCP plans.

Elsa Murano, under secretary for food safety at the USDA, reported that regulatory samples collected from meat and poultry plants showed a reduction in contamination. For instance, 0.86 percent of products were contaminated with E. coli in 2000, compared with 0.78 percent in 2002 and 0.3 percent in 2003.

In 2000, 5.3 percent of samples were positive for Salmonella, compared with 3.8 percent in 2003. "These decreases in regulatory sample data match the decrease that we have seen reported by the CDC," Murano said.

Unfortunately, children continue to bear the brunt of food-borne illnesses, Tauxe said.

For instance, 12 percent of Salmonella cases occur in children younger than 1 year old, and 19 percent occur in children 1 to 4 years old. For Yersinia, 33 percent of cases occur in children under 1, and 19 percent in children 1 to 4 years old, the CDC said.

"It's too early to declare victory. More time is needed to know whether this is going to be sustained," Tauxe added. "That said, I think the overall trends for these important infections suggest that efforts by industry, efforts by individuals, and certainly efforts in every arena seem to have us headed in the right direction."

More information

For more on foodborne illnesses and how to avoid them, visit the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services or the Foodborne Illness Education Information Center, which is co-run by the FDA and the USDA.

SOURCES: April 29, 2004, press conference with Robert Tauxe, M.D., chief, Foodborne and Diarrheal Diseases Branch, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta; Janice Oliver, deputy director, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Rockville, Md.; Elsa Murano, Ph.D., under secretary for food safety, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington, D.C.; April 30, 2004, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report
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