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Health Officials Say Federal Goals Have Been Met for Reduction in E. coli Infections

April 15, 2010 -- Illnesses caused by a potentially deadly strain of E. coli have been cut in half since the mid-1990s, meeting a target set following a particularly serious outbreak of the food-borne pathogen, CDC officials say.

In 1993, hundreds of people became ill and four children died following an outbreak of Echerichia coli O157 traced to undercooked fast-food hamburgers.

Soon after the outbreak, federal officials set the goal of reducing E. coli O157 illness to no more than one case per 100,000 people by 2010.

That goal was reached in 2009, CDC officials now say. But they add that there has been little progress in reducing illness from other food-borne pathogens in recent years.

E. coli Illness Lowest Since 2004

Along with the FDA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and 10 state health departments, the CDC has been tracking illnesses caused by nine food-borne pathogens since 1996 through the FoodNet program.

In addition to E. coli O157, the pathogens include salmonella, listeria, campylobacter, shigella, vibrio, yersinia, cryptosporidium, and cyclospora.

During the first years of surveillance, significant declines were seen in illness caused by most of the pathogens. But with the exception of E. coli, food-related illness has not declined much since 2004, officials now say.

Chris Braden, MD, of the CDC said at a news conference that illnesses caused by E. coli have dropped by 25% over the past three years and are at their lowest levels since 2004.

Braden is the CDC's acting director of the Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases.

"This decrease may be due, at least in part, to continuing efforts to decrease contamination of ground beef and leafy green vegetables consumed raw," he says.

E. coli outbreaks in the fall and early winter of 2006 were traced to fresh bagged spinach and lettuce.

Since last summer, meat processors have been required to test all components of meat used in ground beef. Around the same time, inspectors received new guidelines for evaluating sanitation in meat processing plants.

David Goldman, MD, MPH, administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), attributed much of the E. coli decline to these changes.

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