Food-borne illnesses continue on pace in U.S.

Little progress has been made in combating many types of food-borne illnesses in recent years, according to new federal data, an outcome that food safety advocates say underscores the need to put into place the landmark food-safety bill signed by President Barack Obama more than a year ago.

The most recent figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that the rates of infections linked to four out of five key pathogens it tracks — salmonella, vibrio, campylobacter and listeria — remained relatively steady or increased from 2007 through 2011. The exception is a strain of E. coli, which has been tied to fewer illnesses in the same time frame.

The results frustrated consumer advocates, who along with industry groups pushed for passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act, which empowers the Food and Drug Administration to prevent food-borne illnesses instead of simply reacting to them. Obama signed the legislation in January 2011 after a string of food-borne outbreaks shook consumer confidence in the nation’s food supply.

But the administration has not met the deadlines for releasing draft rules needed to implement key provisions of the law, including one that would mandate that food imported into this country meet the same safety standards as food produced domestically.

“Everyone was hoping that this new food safety law would be in place and we’d start seeing improvements by now,” said Erik Olson, a director at the Pew Health Group. “What these CDC numbers show is that unless new protections are put into place, millions of Americans are going to continue to get sick from contaminated food.”

Unlike last year, the CDC data were released without reaching out to key stakeholders who typically are notified in advance. Instead, the charts and graphs were quietly posted online Friday. The data are compiled annually to show trends for infections commonly transmitted through food and to guide policy decisions.

“Last year they gave these numbers some prominence,” said Chris Waldrop, a director at the Consumer Federation of America. “It’s very curious that they would quietly publish them on their Web site… . These numbers are a way to hold government accountable in reducing food-borne illnesses.”

CDC officials could not be reached for comment.

The data are based on infections diagnosed by 10 state laboratories. The geographical region covered includes about 47 million people or 15 percent of the U.S. population, the CDC said.

The CDC found that the most frequent cause of infection in 2011 was salmonella, followed by campylobacter. The data also showed that progress has been made since the late 1990s in lowering illnesses linked to most of the nine pathogens that CDC tracks. For instance, infections tied to shigella were down 65 percent in 2011 compared with the average annual incidence for the period of 1996 through 1998. Those tied to E. coli O157:H7 were down 42 percent.

The trend for those two pathogens continued when comparing last year’s data to the period of 2006 through 2011, with shigella infections down 43 percent and the deadly E. coli strain down 25 percent. But campylobacter infections were up 14 percent. There were small, but not statistically significant, increases in other pathogens.

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