About one in six Americans gets sick from food poisoning every year, and 3,000 die, the government said. “The bottom line is that food-borne illness, particularly salmonella, is far too common,” CDC Director Thomas R. Frieden said during a conference call with reporters Tuesday. “We need to do more.”
The data, which are extrapolated nationally based on illnesses reported in 10 states, show a decline in illnesses from E. coli O157:H7, one of the most deadly food-borne bacteria in this country. That strain of E. coli burst into the public consciousness in 1993 when hundreds were sickened and four children died after eating tainted Jack in the Box hamburgers.
E. coli bacteria, which live in the intestines of humans and cattle and other ruminants, can contaminate meat. E. coli also has tainted produce such as lettuce and spinach, fruit juice, unpasteurized milk and cheese, and processed foods such as refrigerated cookie dough.
From 1997 to 2010, the number of E. coli O157:H7 infections dropped by half, according to the CDC. Federal health officials credit more stringent federal regulation, better detection and investigation of E. coli O157:H7 outbreaks, and steps taken by the food industry, particularly beef processors, to prevent contamination at slaughterhouses. Officials also say food workers and consumers have become better educated about the safe handling and cooking of meat.
“This report outlines some great progress that we’ve made,” said Elisabeth Hagen, undersecretary for food safety at the Agriculture Department, which regulates meat, poultry and some egg products. “But it also shows we have more work to do.”
E. coli O157:H7 is a relative of E. coli O104, the bacterium identified in an outbreak in Europe that has sickened more than 2,400 people and killed at least 24. The source of that outbreak, which began last month in Germany, remains a mystery. European health officials said Tuesday that the rate of new infections had slowed, suggesting the outbreak has peaked. But the death toll may continue to rise because an unusually large number of those infected — 642 — have developed a life-threatening kidney complication.
While E. coli O157:H7 infections have declined, the CDC noted an increase in other E. coli strains that are just as dangerous, said Chris Braden, director of CDC’s division of food-borne, water-borne and environmental diseases. Officials believe the rise may reflect better detection.
To address the growing problem of non-O157 E. coli strains in the food supply, the USDA wants to make it illegal to sell raw beef contaminated with six virulent strains of non-O157 E. coli known to public health officials as the “Big Six,” according to sources. The proposal has met with stiff resistance from the meat industry and has been pending since January at the Office of Management and Budget, which vets all proposed regulation.
“As with any new policy, questions and suggestions are going to arise, and we’re working closely with OMB to get any technical questions addressed,” Hagen said. “We all want to get this right.”
Federal officials studying the new CDC data could not say with certainty why salmonella is such a stubborn threat. They pointed to its pervasiveness, noting that the bacteria can turn up in foods from poultry to peanuts. “We think the major reason is the very large number of products that can be contaminated with salmonella,” Frieden said.
Salmonella causes about 1.2 million cases of food poisoning each year. Its victims are most likely to be 5 or younger. Infections from salmonella, which can be deadly, result in $365 million in direct medical costs each year, according to the CDC.
Until recently, most food manufacturers and farmers were not required to prevent contamination from salmonella or other pathogens, said Michael R. Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods at the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates all foods not overseen by the USDA, including processed foods, fresh produce, shell eggs, dairy products and seafood.
Last year, Congress gave the FDA sweeping authority to create a food safety system that would require foodmakers and farmers to prevent contamination from salmonella and other pathogens. But the agency’s ability to implement the new law is in question after House Republicans moved to cut the FDA’s budget for the next fiscal year.
“Investing in prevention is, ultimately, the only way to provide the protection that consumers expect,” Taylor said.