Are Food Safety Rules Helping to Ban the Germs? CDC Doesn't Know

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April 5, 2001 (Washington) -- Since the mid-1990s, the government has been trying to cut down on the number of cases of people getting sick from eating contaminated food. So the federal regulators have been phasing in new rules aimed at promoting good practices, increasing surveillance, and raising more attention to overall safety.

But according to the CDC's latest report, it is difficult to determine what effect, if any, these efforts have had at all.

Investigators have estimated that food-borne illnesses affected about 76 million American each year. In these types of incidents, sufferers may not be affected at all or could show symptoms ranging from gastrointestinal problems to even death.

Comparing 1996 to 2000, the CDC noted Thursday that while it appears that the overall incidence of food borne illness is now on the decline, regional variations and substantial year-to-year fluctuations have made it nearly impossible to identify a national trend.

The CDC said that the incidence of infections with a germ called E. coli 0157 appeared to increase from 1999 to 2000 in at least five states, but a trend could not be discerned due to yearly variations. E.coli 0157 infectioncan cause stomach cramps and bloody diarrhea and can be fatal.

Similarly, an apparent increase in Shigella, an organism that causes diarrhea, could be blamed for outbreaks in California and Minnesota -- so health officials can't tell if the national incidence is on the rise or decline, the CDC said.

According to the CDC report, it is almost impossible to determine how often the most common infections occur, because not all cases are reported to health officials and not all facilities test for all the usual microscopic suspects. And because people also can become infected through other sources like drinking water, the actual source of the germ may never be discovered.

Despite the CDC's uncertainty, industry representatives maintain that the new regulations have made a difference.

Because food producers were made a critical part of the process, the regulations have encouraged good manufacturing practices, says Peter Cleary, a spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, the world's largest association of food, beverage, and consumer product makers. Helping to develop their own solutions, he tells WebMD, has worked better than taking a "one size fit all" approach.


Food safety experts agree -- in part. They say the regulations were a step in the right direction but that the government, industry, and consumers should not consider these regulations to be a "magic bullet."

"These bugs have been around longer than any humans, and it would be safe to assume that they can adapt," explains Ronald Labbe, PhD, a professor of food microbiology at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. "We are intruding on them, they are not intruding on us."

Still, Labbe adds that there is no reason for consumers to take radical action.

"There is always going to be some element of risk. It's something you have to put up with in life," he tells WebMD, noting that at the very least there is no way to establish whether food from a restaurant will be safe.

To decrease the degree of risk, Labbe says there are several steps consumers can take. Among them, Labbe suggests avoiding raw protein-based foods like shellfish, keeping a clean kitchen and hands, as well as following the directions on food labels.

"Most of the steps are just common sense," Labbe notes.

But at the same time, consumers can also exercise some flexibility, Labbe tells WebMD. For example, he says, although it is advisable to refrigerate leftovers right away -- it probably would not kill anyone to leave that turkey out for an hour or so.

"I find myself in that category as well," Labbe says. "You just have to make sure that you refrigerate it before going to bed. Leaving it out overnight could be a big deal."

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