Food poisoning thrives as ways of life change

More use of uncooked, precooked meals blamed

March 18, 2001|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Tapeworm and botulism have been all but eradicated in this country, and technologies, including freeze-drying and irradiation, have been developed to make food safer. But because of changing eating habits and more choices of foods, Americans may be more likely to get sick from what they eat than they were a half-century ago.

The frequency of serious gastrointestinal illness, a common gauge of food poisoning, is 34 percent above what it was in 1948, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Not all scientists agree with that conclusion; some say food poisoning is as common as it was then, but not necessarily more so. Still, there is no doubt about the scale of the problem.

Every year, the agency says, food poisoning causes 5,000 deaths, 325,000 hospitalizations and 76 million illnesses.

Food poisoning is at least as common as it was 50 years ago because people are eating more fresh fruits and vegetables without cooking them, according to government statistics.

Also, people are eating more precooked foods, such as seafood salads and deli meats, which are more dangerous than meals served off the stove or out of the oven.

The variety of foods available has expanded considerably faster than the government's ability to inspect them, agencies say. In the past decade, grocery stores have doubled the number of items they stock, from every corner of the world, some carrying new organisms that scientists still cannot identify, much less treat.

The amount of contaminated food that reaches store shelves only to be recalled for posing health risks has reached its highest level in more than a decade.

"We do have a real problem," said Joe Levitt, food safety director for the national Food and Drug Administration.

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