While the United States has made progress in keeping E. coli O157:H7 at bay in the food supply, it hasn’t made much headway in combating Salmonella, health officials said Tuesday.
And another front has opened as well: For the first time, the number of people infected with various strains of non-O157 E. coli last year exceeded the number of those sickened by O157 in 10 monitored states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC’s “Vital Signs” report, the annual update released Tuesday, summarizes data from the nation’s Foodborne Disease Active Surveillance Network. Called FoodNet, the system tracks lab-confirmed cases of foodborne infection California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, Oregon and Tennessee. The stats are used as a measuring stick for the incidence of food poisoning over time and across the country.
Slightly more than 19,000 cases of food poisoning were reported in the FoodNet states last year, compared with 17,500 cases in 2009, and about 18,500 in 2008. Since monitoring began in 1996, however, food poisoning cases in these states have decreased by about a quarter and rates for most illnesses have been relatively stable.
The exception was for Salmonella, the most common and deadliest bug, which was responsible for more than 8,000 illnesses and 29 deaths last year. That’s an incidence rate of 17.6 illnesses per 100,000 people — three times the national health target set by regulators.
Like crime stats, foodborne illness numbers don’t indicate trends when compared year-to-year, and the national outbreak of Salmonella linked to eggs may explain last year’s spike. But Salmonella cases haven’t diminished in 15 years, and have actually increased since 2006 to 2008.
In a conference call with reporters, CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden said there has been virtually no progress made against Salmonella, which the report said costs the U.S. $365 million in direct medical expenditures each year.
By contrast, rates for E. coli O157:H7, the most common Shiga toxin-producing E. coli bacteria in the U.S., are now at 0.9 infections per 100,000 people and have fallen by nearly half over the past 15 years.
The CDC report said declaring E. coli O157:H7 as an adulterant in ground beef in 1994, along with cleaner slaughter methods, microbial testing, better inspections in processing plants, improved detection and investigation of outbreaks, and increased public awareness of proper handling and cooking have worked to decrease the incidence of infection to the national health target.
The success in reducing O157:H7 should serve as “a prominent lesson” for how to reduce Salmonella and other foodborne infections, the report stated.
Meanwhile, during the press briefing on the report, CDC epidemiologist Dr. Christopher Braden addressed why the non-O157:H7 strains of E. coli now appear to be more prevalent. The organisms have probably always been more common than was realized, Braden said, but likely under-reported before because of the difficulty in screening for them.
Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, under secretary for food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was asked if the Food Safety and Inspection Service will declare non-O157:H7 strains of E. coli as adulterants in meat.
“We’ve studied the issue, we’ve developed other test methodologies and we’ve proposed a policy that we believe will improve our ability to protect consumers,” she replied. “We’re working with the Office of Management and Budget to address some technical issues and we’re hopeful that we’ll be able to move forward on that very soon.”
When pressed to say whether the proposal is stalled in OMB, Hagen said “… as with any new policy, questions and suggestions are going to arise,” adding “… we want to get this right.”