April 29, 2004 -- Just in time for picnic season, the CDC has some good news about some of the most dangerous threats to food safety.
A new report shows cases of E. coli O157:H7 infections, one of the most severe food-borne illnesses, dropped by 36% from 2002 to 2003. Most illnesses caused by E. coli infections are the result of eating undercooked, contaminated ground beef.
"This decline is promising, but it is a one-year change and more time is needed to know whether this is going to be sustained," says Robert Tauxe, MD, chief of the CDC's food-borne and diarrheal diseases branch. "That said, overall trends suggest that efforts by industry, individuals, and certainly efforts in the regulatory arena seem to have us headed in the right direction."
Overall, food poisoning cases have declined by 42% since 1996, and the incidences of three other common culprits also dropped significantly during that period:
- Campylobacter infections, often caused by eating contaminated poultry, dropped 28%.
Salmonella cases, also frequently caused by poultry, declined 17%.
Yersinia infections, commonly caused by eating infected pork, dropped 49%.
However, Listeria-related illnesses, which had been declining over the last four years, did not decline in 2003 and remained relatively unchanged. Listeria is often found in undercooked meat, deli meats, shellfish, and sausages. Shigella infections, which are often the result of contact with sewage-contaminated food or water, also did not change significantly from 1996-2003.
Decline in Food Poisoning Cases
The report appears in the April 30 issue of the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report and is based on preliminary 2003 data from FoodNet, the CDC's food-borne diseases surveillance network. FoodNet tracks the number of infections caused by bacteria and other pathogens found in food.
Researchers say an estimated 76 million people contract food-borne and other diarrheal illnesses each year.
Tauxe says the decline in illnesses caused by some of the most common types of bacteria is likely due to a combination of factors, such as using a thermometer when cooking meat and poultry, washing hands during food preparation, and better tracking of contaminated meat and poultry by producers and regulators.
Elsa Murano, PhD, the USDA's undersecretary for food safety, says the decreases in food poisoning cases reported by the CDC mirror recent declines in bacteria found in regulatory sampling of food products. For example, the percentage of contaminated samples found in 2000 was 0.86%, and in 2003 that number was 0.3%.