U.S. sees big drop in 6 food poisoning bugs: CDC

WASHINGTON Thu Apr 15, 2010 8:17pm BST

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Cases of six common food poisoning agents have dropped sharply since the U.S. government started to monitor them closely in the 1990s, officials reported on Thursday.

While incidence of the most feared infections are down, notably Salmonella and E. coli 0157, infections from raw shellfish have become more common, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

The CDC estimates 76 million people in the United States get sick every year from foodborne illnesses and 5,000 people die from them. It set up the Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network, or Foodnet, to track specific cases.

"Overall, this year's report indicates that there have been reductions in illness due to many of these pathogens ... over the past 15 years," Dr. Chris Braden of the CDC's division of foodborne diseases told a telephone briefing.

But most of the reductions came soon after the system was put into place and rates have been stable in more recent years, the CDC said.

"We can say that since Foodnet began surveillance in 1996, Campylobacter, Listeria, Salmonella, Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (STEC) O157, Shigella, and Yersinia, six of the pathogens that we track, have all declined."

Various initiatives have helped. The U.S. Department of Agriculture began work to clean up meat and poultry processing after outbreaks of E. coli in the early 1990s.

But since 2003 the U.S. food supply has been hit by a series of high-profile outbreaks, many involving produce such as lettuce, spinach, peppers and peanuts.

The CDC, USDA and Food and Drug Administration officials who briefed reporters on Thursday all agreed that much more needs to be done to tackle food pathogens.

Congress is working on the first major overhaul of the food safety system in 50 years, with the Senate due to take up the issue next week. The House of Representatives passed food reform legislation last July.

Last month, the Pew Charitable Trusts and Georgetown University reported that foodborne illnesses cost the United States $152 billion in health-related expenses each year.

Since 1996-1998, cases of Shigella fell 55 percent, E. coli 0157 fell 41 percent, Campylobacter fell 30 percent and Salmonella fell 10 percent, the CDC survey found.

"For most infections, reported incidence was highest among children aged under 4 years; the percentage of persons hospitalized and the case fatality rate were highest among persons aged over 50 years," the CDC team wrote in the agency's weekly report on death and disease.

(Reporting by Maggie Fox; Editing by Christopher Doering and John O'Callaghan)

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