There's been little progress made in reducing foodborne illness in the United States in recent years, and infections with some pathogens are on the rise, according to an update to the nation's food-safety report card.
In 2012, the percentage of people sickened by the foodborne bacteria Campylobacter was 14 percent higher than it was between 2006 and 2008, according to the report, which was released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Over the same period, the rates of illness from Salmonella, Listeria and several other foodborne bacteria remained unchanged, the report said.
However, there have been reductions in cases of foodborne illness over the last 15 years. In 2012, the overall incidence of illness from six common foodborne bacteria was 22 percent lower than it was between 1996 and 1998, the report found.
Collecting more information about foodborne illness infections could help health officials better determine where they should target their prevention efforts, the report said.
"The U.S. food supply remains one of the safest in the world,” Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the CDC, said in a statement. "However, some foodborne diseases continue to pose a challenge. We have the ability, through investments in emerging technologies, to identify outbreaks even more quickly and implement interventions even faster to protect people from the dangers posed by contaminated food."
Each year in the United States, about one in six people fall ill with some type of foodborne illness, Dr. Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the CDC's Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases, said at a news conference about the report.
Last year, Campylobacter infections were at their highest level since 2000, causing about 14 illnesses per 100,000 people. The infections — which can cause diarrhea, fever and abdominal pain — are more common in the western United States and in children under age 5, the report said. Often, Campylobacter infections are linked with eating raw or undercooked poultry.
The reason for the recent increase in Campylobacter infections is "a little bit of a puzzle," Tauxe said.
There's actually been a decrease in Campylobacter infections from whole chickens and turkeys, which health officials recently began testing for the bacteria, said Dr. David Goldman, assistant administrator of the U.S. Department of Agricultures's Office of Public Health Science. But Campylobacter can contaminate other foods, and better testing methods may help health officials figure out what sources are responsible for the recent rise, Tauxe said.
Also in 2012, the rate of infection with Vibrio bacteria rose 43 percent compared with the period between 2006 and 2008. However, Vibrio infections, which are often linked with eating raw oysters, remain relatively uncommon, occurring at a rate of 4 cases per 1 millionpeople.
Salmonella infections were the most commonly diagnosed foodborne illness in the report, with about 16 cases per 100,000 people — about the same rate as in 1996, Tauxe said.
The study included information about the rates of illness with nine foodborne pathogens from 10 sites around the United States. These sites capture information from about 48 million people.. Not all pathogens that cause foodborne illness were included in the report. For instance, the study did not include rates of infection with the norovirus, a common stomach bug.
Health officials have been successful in the past in reducing cases of foodborne illness, and recent changes in food regulations, such as the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011, may start to have an impact soon, Tauxe said.
Consumers can take steps to reduce their risk of foodborne illness by following food safety tips, such as washing their hands before preparing food and after handling uncooked eggs and raw meat, properly cleaning surfaces and utensils, and making sure foods are properly cooked.
The report is published this week in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
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