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Common food-borne illnesses decline, but not all

By Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY

The bad news: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 76 million people in the USA get a food-borne or diarrheal illness each year, and children are particularly at risk.

The good news: Cases of at least five of the most common pathogens have significantly declined.

Common symptoms of such illnesses include diarrhea, abdominal pain and cramping. Of those who get sick, 323,000 are hospitalized, and 5,000 die.

There was a dramatic decline last year in cases of deadly E. coli O157:H7 infection - 36% fewer than in the previous year, according to food-borne surveillance data released Thursday by the CDC in collaboration with the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture.

The food-borne disease most likely to disable or kill children, it is commonly spread via undercooked or raw hamburger.

"This decline in E. coli O157:H7 is very promising. It's too soon to know if it's sustainable because we see lots of year-to-year difference, but it was statistically significant for the first time," says Robert Tauxe of the CDC's food-borne and diarrheal diseases office.

Food-borne illnesses

A national survey shows far fewer cases of many, but not all, food-borne illnesses since 1996. The new data are extrapolated from surveillance of 41.5 million people, or 14% of the U.S. population, in nine sites.

  • Campylobacter, down 28%. Causes diarrhea, cramping, abdominal pain and fever, possibly with vomiting. Associated with handling or eating raw poultry.

  • E. coli O157: H7, down 42%. Causes cramping, abdominal pain, bloody diarrhea and vomiting. Spread via raw hamburger, alfalfa sprouts, unpasteurized fruit juices, dry-cured salami and lettuce.

  • Listeria, unchanged. Causes fever, headache and vomiting. Found in soft cheese, unpasteurized milk, imported seafood products, frozen cooked crab meat, cooked shrimp.

Three other common food-borne diseases have shown continued decline since 1996, when they first began to be tracked. Campylobacter, from raw or uncooked poultry,is down by 28%. The most common form of salmonella, from contaminated meat, poultry, eggs or produce, is down 17%. And yersinia, from raw or undercooked pork, is down 49%.

Some pathogens aren't budging. Listeria, found in dairy products and seafood, is unchanged. Although uncommon, it kills 20% of those it infects. Shigella, found in dairy products, poultry, and potato salad, is also unchanged.

Others are getting worse. Vibrio, from shellfish, is up 116%. And while most salmonella types either declined or were unchanged, one uncommon form called javiana is up 227%, mostly in Georgia.

The CDC must begin tracking not only illnesses but also the foods they're associated with, says Glen Morris, chairman of the department of epidemiology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and a former Agriculture Department official. "There are suggestions that produce may increasingly be becoming a vehicle for infection, but we don't have the food data linked to this human case data. That's the gaping hole in the analysis," he says.

The CDC report cited the need for on-farm controls for both egg and produce production. USDA and FDA have been developing these for more than five years, but a rule has not yet been released.

Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, notes that cases of salmonella enteritidis, found in eggs, have not declined since 1996.