WASHINGTON – The number of food-borne illnesses in the United States has remained stagnant over the last three years, and, in some cases, has been on the upswing, giving new urgency to efforts to reform the nation’s food safety system, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 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, they began rising again or have stayed constant. Those include illnesses those caused by salmonella, vibrio, E. coli 0157, listeria and campylobacter.
Preliminary 2008 data shows 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 actual 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 peaked in the early months of 2009, with nearly 700 people sickened and nine killed.
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.
“It reflects the complexity of the problem with many different foods becoming potentially contaminated, including more fresh produce. It reflects that fact that pathogens like E.coli 0157 and salmonella can spread in the environment and contaminate a number of different foods, some of which we have not seen in the past,” Tauxe said. “And the food industry is also complicated and changing with a variety of different arenas and components from all over the world.”
Children under 4 years old are particularly hard hit by food-borne pathogens, and adults over 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.