The number of Americans falling ill from foodborne pathogens remained steady or marginally worsened in the latter half of the 2000s, and 2011 turned out to show little difference, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which released its annual report of foodborne illness data for 2011 on Friday evening.
While the data showed a promising five-year decline of E. coli O157:H7 and Shigella infections since 2007, infection rates stagnated or slightly grew for a number of other notable bacteria, including Salmonella, Campylobacter and Listeria.
As a whole, the data have some food safety advocates reemphasizing the importance of implementing measures of the Food Safety Modernization Act, signed into law by President Obama in January 2011 and designed to shift the focus of U.S. food safety from a reactive system to something more preventative. Many of the act’s central rules have blown past implementation deadlines, including new food import standards and domestic preventative control requirements.
According to the data, Salmonella, Campylobacter and Listeria continue to infect numbers well beyond goals set by the U.S. government for 2010:
For every 100,000 people, 16.5 fell ill with Salmonella in 2011 and 17.5 the year before, despite a goal to reduce that number to 6.8 by then. Similarly, Campylobacter infected 14.3 in 2011 (surpassing the 12.3-person goal), and 0.28 were sickened by Listeria (just above the 2010 goal of 0.24).
At the same time, however, E. coli O157 rates fell to 0.98, just below its goal of 1.0. That’s down from 1.20 in 2007, 1.69 in 2002 and 2.62 in 1996, the year the CDC first began compiling yearly reports on these pathogens.
Food safety attorney Bill Marler, whose law firm Marler Clark underwrites Food Safety News, attributed the decline of E. coli O157 infections to the zero-tolerance policy adopted by the beef industry since the bacteria first made national headlines in the 1993 Jack-in-the-Box E. coli outbreak. For years, O157 has been considered an adulterant in ground beef, with producers widely screening their product to keep the bug out.
By comparison, Salmonella and Campylobacter, both commonly associated with poultry, have no such designation within the poultry industry.
“If you look at the trend for O157, you can make a fairly coherent argument that listing that bug as an adulterant and having zero tolerance for it has driven its numbers down,” Marler said. “I think that industry and the public would be well-served if Campylobacter and Salmonella — especially antibiotic-resistant strains — were considered adulterants and were no longer tolerated in the food supply.”
And while O157’s number have dropped by more than 250 percent since 1996, other toxin-producing E. coli strains have seen a dramatic rise in the last two years. In 2011, infection rates of these strains — collectively referred to as ‘non-O157 E. coli’ — rose above O157’s for the first time.
Since 1996, non-O157 E. coli infection rates have increased from 0.19 to 1.08 per 100,000 people. The biggest jump came in 2010, when the rate rose from 0.61 to 0.95.
As of June 4, 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture now considers six of the most prevalent non-O157 E. coli strains adulterants, ranking them in line with O157. Health officials hope the new designation will help drive those infection rates back the opposite direction.
“The red meat industry clearly has done a remarkable job dealing with O157, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens with these non-O157 numbers,” Marler said.
Overall, the U.S. has made historic progress in reducing foodborne illness rates since 1996, he added. Beyond E. coli O157 reductions, Shigella rates have fallen from 8.9 to 3.2, Campylobcater from 23.6 to 14.3.
The final push to lower some infection rates below their national goals may take a sincerely concentrated effort on the part of industry and government. Looking for a topical analogy, Marler turned to the Olympics: It’s much easier for a runner to progress from running a 6-minute mile to a 5-minute than it is to progress from a 5-minute mile to a 4-minute.
“That’s where I think we are,” Marler said. “That’s why I think the approach of the [Food Safety Modernization Act] — prevention as opposed to reaction — that’s what will drive those numbers down. It’s going to require producers to be proactive.”
The CDC’s annual data come from FoodNet, a network that coordinates data from public health laboratories across 10 states. The regions represented include 47 million people, 15 percent of the U.S. population.© Food Safety News