SAN FRANCISCO – Despite the recent E. coli spinach outbreak, food may be safer now than at any other time in the past decade, with illness occurring at record-low rates, new federal statistics show.
Consumers get part of the credit, for handling food more safely at home, but experts say the biggest improvement came from better industry controls and inspections.
“The food is actually cleaner to begin with,” said Dr. Robert Tauxe, top food scientist at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Certain germs have dramatically declined, and “that to me is really solid progress.”
However, the trend could reverse in coming years if fruit and vegetable growers do not address problems such as those that led to the spinach scare, Tauxe and others said.
“The meat and poultry industry has made great strides. The produce industry has a long way to go to catch up,” said Michael Doyle, a microbiologist who heads the University of Georgia’s Center for Food Safety.
On Friday, the Food and Drug Administration lifted its warning on spinach except for specific brands packaged on certain dates. Consumers should continue to avoid spinach recalled by Natural Selection Foods LLC of San Juan Bautista and four companies that it supplied.
The recall covered 34 brands bearing “best if used by” dates of Aug. 17 through Oct. 1, so most of it is thought to be out of the food supply.
The spinach sickened 187 people in 26 states, hospitalized 97 of them and killed one. Outbreaks typically are far larger than the number of lab-confirmed cases reported to federal officials, Tauxe said.
Germs in food make 76 million Americans sick, send 323,000 to hospitals and kill 5,000 each year, the CDC estimates.
But the situation greatly improved over the past decade, according to illness statistics the agency reported Friday at a conference of the American Society for Microbiology.
In 2005, compared with the 1996-98 period when the CDC’s FoodNet tracking system began, illnesses were down for major germs.
Only vibrio, a germ spread through raw oysters, rose significantly – 41 percent.
E. coli outbreaks typically have involved undercooked ground meat. But in recent years, the germ has increasingly been linked to produce, as has a certain strain of salmonella.
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