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Washington, D.C. -- The incidence of foodborne illnesses in the United States continues to decline, according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Infections from E. coli O157:H7 are down 42 percent since the baseline years of 1996-1998, according to the CDC. The agency said over the same time period, U.S. Department of Agriculture has observed a sustained decline in the positive samples of E. coli O157:H7 in its ground beef sampling program. Last month, USDA said it found a 43.3 percent drop in positive E. coli O157:H7 tests in the ground beef samples.
Dramatic multi-year reductions in illnesses from E. coli O157 means the U.S. is now below the Healthy People 2010 goal of one case per 100,000 persons, according to the CDC.
Said Merle Pierson, USDA acting undersecretary for food safety, "Continued important reductions in foodborne illnesses announced today by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicate that USDA's aggressive attention to science based policies and effective enforcement strategies are protecting public health by making meat, poultry and egg products safer."
Pierson called the 43.3 percent drop in detected E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef samples collected in 2004 vs. the previous year "a remarkable national achievement. We are also very close to meeting the Healthy People 2010 goal set for illnesses from Listeria monocytogenes and Campylobacter. This year's report tells us that reductions in foodborne illness reported in 2003 were not an isolated event, and that sustained progress is being made toward reducing illness from very dangerous foodborne pathogens."
While the CDC data includes infections associated with all food sources, and from contact with live animals and their environments, Pierson said it is consistent with the results of regulatory testing of meat, poultry, and egg products by the Food Safety and Inspection Service.
CDC also said listeriosis cases declined 40 percent since the baseline years, which corresponds to a sustained decline in the incidence of Listeria monocytogenes on ready-to-eat meat and poultry products, according to USDA data.
In addition to regulatory testing results, recalls for E. coli O157:H7, Listeria monocytogenes and Salmonella in FSIS regulated products dropped from 65 in 2002 to 23 in 2004.
In 2002, FSIS implemented requirements for all beef plants to reexamine their food safety plans, based on evidence that E. coli O157:H7 is a hazard reasonably likely to occur. Plants that had previously not done so were required to implement measures that would eliminate or sufficiently reduce the risk of E. coliO157:H7 contamination of their products. FSIS personnel then assessed processors' food safety plans for scientific validity and compared what was written in plant Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) plans to what was taking place in daily operations. A majority of plants have made major changes to their operations based on the directive, including the installation and validation of new technologies specifically designed to combat E. coli O157:H7. Many plants have also increased their testing for E. coli O157:H7 in order to verify their food safety systems.
"We are encouraged by the advances that have been made in decreasing the risk of foodborne disease associated with FSIS-regulated products," said Pierson, adding, "These declines must be continued, and at the same time, further progress must be made for pathogens such as Salmonella."
For it part, the American Meat Institute Foundation is "gratified to see that foodborne illnesses continue to trend downward -- the same way pathogenic bacteria on many meat and poultry products are trending downward," said James H. Hodges, president of the industry-funded institute, which conducts research and education programs aimed at reducing and ultimately eliminating foodborne bacteria on meat and poultry products.
"For the past decade, AMIF has conducted millions of dollars in research to find ways to enhance meat and poultry safety -- research that has been applied with enormous success in meat and poultry plants nationwide," said Hodges. "The meat industry has developed and shared best practices aimed at making meat products safer for consumers."
In the fight against foodborne disease, he added, "We are not prepared to declare victory. Rather, the data will encourage us to sustain our efforts at identifying new and better technologies to make meat and poultry even safer."