Food getting safer - for the most part

Overall rate of illness is falling, but some pathogens still pose serious dangers

December 08, 2006|By Frank D. Roylance and Michael Stroh | Frank D. Roylance and Michael Stroh,SUN REPORTERS

This has been a tough week for the food industry.

Taco Bell pulled suspect green onions from its 5,800 stores after dozens of people in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania were sickened by E. coli.

In California, Jamba Juice warned consumers that its strawberry smoothies might be tainted with the deadly bacterium Listeria monocytogenes.

And Consumer Reports found that 83 percent of the chicken its testers purchased in U.S. grocery stores carried organisms that cause food-borne illness.

All this followed a highly publicized September outbreak of E. coli from bagged spinach that killed three people and sickened more than 200 in 26 states.

It sounds as though U.S. food supplies are becoming more hazardous to our health. But are they really?

Health authorities say the general incidence of reported food-borne illnesses is down in recent years. But some pathogens remain a serious and stubborn problem.

Nationwide, officials estimate that food-borne pathogens cause 76 million illnesses and 5,000 deaths each year.

Federal tracking of outbreaks -- defined as cases involving two or more people -- showed a sharp increase after 1997. But that jump was attributed largely to better surveillance. Since then, the annual number of outbreaks has remained fairly steady, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Meanwhile, government figures show the number of people who fall ill from food-borne pathogens has generally declined. But there's a catch, officials say.

"Only a relatively small proportion of those are identified and reported to health departments like ours," says Dr. David Blythe, an epidemiologist at the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

For example, while officials estimate that salmonella causes 1.4 million illnesses each year, only 16,821 cases were reported to the CDC between 1998 and 2002.

Most people sickened by pathogens in their food cope with it on their own, health experts say. They might not blame their symptoms on anything they ate or handled in the kitchen. They might never tell a doctor what they suspect or have lab tests.

"Outbreaks that are most likely to be brought to the attention of public health authorities include those that are large, interstate or restaurant-associated, or that can cause serious illness, hospitalization or death," a CDC report concluded last month.

News headlines suggest that restaurants are a major hazard. In fact, CDC figures show that 52 percent of the 9,040 outbreaks reported between 1998 and 2004 were linked to restaurants, according to the journal Food Safety.

The vast majority of reported cases occur among individuals, and most cases aren't reported.

A 2002 survey of almost 12,000 people by the Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network (FoodNet) found that more than 5 percent had experienced acute diarrhea within the previous month. The rates were higher among those who ate often at fast-food restaurants.

Better reporting and investigation are clearly responsible for some of the increased illness counts in recent years, according to Dr. Ellen Silbergeld, a professor of environmental health science at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

But there are indications that a serious underlying problem is not being addressed, she said.

Silbergeld noted that the September E. coli outbreak involved bacteria from animal waste generated by industrial-scale feeding operations. The bacteria turned up in irrigation water used on spinach fields in California.

The U.S. now produces 200 times as much animal waste as human waste. Yet, she said, "We do not require anything of the management of these wastes. ... As long as you are not putting animal wastes directly on land where you are going to grow crops for human consumption, you can pretty much do whatever you want."

Intense media interest in outbreaks of food-borne illness might also contribute to perceptions that food safety is a growing problem, said USDA spokesman Steven Cohen. But coverage can also enhance public safety.

"That is helpful to us," he said, "because making people aware of the situation is one way that you prevent further illness. A lot of times the adulterated products are removed very quickly from store shelves, but they could easily be in someone's freezer."

What scientists do know is that different pathogens present different problems. A 2005 CDC study of lab-confirmed outbreaks in Maryland and nine other states found falling infection rates for some pathogens compared with baseline years of 1996-1998.

But infections caused by some strains of salmonella (from raw eggs, meat, poultry and produce) and vibrio (raw oysters) increased as much as 82 percent.

Although E. coli outbreaks have made headlines this year, the CDC found the incidence of such infections in 2005 was down 29 percent compared with baseline years.

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