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Number of U.S. Foodborne Illness Cases Stalled: CDC

THURSDAY, April 18 (HealthDay News) -- Progress in reducing foodborne illness in the United States seems to have stalled, health officials reported Thursday.

"Every year, we estimate that about 48 million of us -- that would be one in six people in the United States -- gets sick from eating contaminated food," said Dr. Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the division of foodborne, waterborne and environmental diseases at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2012, the nation's food surveillance program identified about 19,500 infections, about 4,500 hospitalizations and 68 deaths, Tauxe said at a noon press conference on the study results. Those numbers are similar to ones reported between 2006 and 2008, the report noted.

The findings appear in the April 19 issue of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, published by the CDC.

"We see, once again, that salmonella was the most commonly diagnosed and reported cause of infection among those that are tracked," Tauxe said, and while some types have decreased, others are on the rise.

Although the second most common infection, Campylobacter, decreased since the early 1990s, "it's still lower than it was in the 1990s but it has increased by 14 percent since a baseline period of 2006 to 2008," Tauxe said.

While still quite rare, he said Vibrio infections increased 43 percent in 2012, compared with 2006 to 2008.

"Vibrio organisms are found in marine waters where shellfish are harvested and many Vibrio infections are due to eating oysters," he noted. "However, not all are due to oysters and some infections are acquired from contact with marine water causing, for instance, wound infections."

E. coli O157 levels in 2012 were similar to those observed in 2006 to 2008, although in the past "substantial declines were observed following regulatory change and improvement in the food industry that particularly targeted ground beef," Tauxe noted.

"It is still the case now that numbers were lower than they were back in the 1990s," he said. "But right now we're just about where we were in 2006 to 2008, and we may need to identify additional ways to reduce contamination, as well as heightening awareness among consumers about the importance of thoroughly cooking and safely handling ground beef in their own homes."

A general measure that combines sickness from six key pathogens that are usually transmitted by food decreased 22 percent from the late 1990s, but really hasn't changed since 2006 to 2008, he added.

Last year, the highest incidence of foodborne illnesses caused by Cryptosporidium and bacteria other than listeria and Vibrio was among children younger than age 5. The highest incidence of illnesses caused by listeria and Vibrio was among seniors, according to the report.

Tauxe noted some caveats in the results. Surveillance data do not cover the entire country -- only about 15 percent of the population. Some of the illnesses are also acquired from sources other than food, and norovirus ("cruise virus") isn't covered because it typically isn't tested for in clinical labs.

Also speaking at the conference was Dr. David Goldman, assistant administrator at the Office of Public Health Science, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service.

"We have seen that there have been some positive trends . . . but compared to recent years we have seen some troubling trends that we continue to address," Goldman said.

In 2012, the USDA added six strains of E. coli in its industry testing of beef-trim products, he said, and the agency continues to evaluate data and is considering testing of other beef products.

They've also tightened standards for salmonella and implemented new Campylobacter standards for plants producing chicken and turkey, Goldman noted.

More information

The U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has more about foodborne illness.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCES: April 18, 2013, news conference with: Robert Tauxe, M.D., M.P.H., deputy director, division of foodborne, waterborne and environmental diseases, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and David Goldman, M.D., M.P.H., assistant administrator, Office of Public Health Science, USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service; U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, news release, April 18, 2013

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