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U.S. Food Safety No Longer Improving

From Gardiner Harris of The New York Times: After decades of steady progress, the safety of the nation's food supply has not improved over the past three years, the government reported [April 9]. And, it said, in the case of salmonella, the dangerous bacteria recently found in peanuts and pistachios, infections may be creeping upward.

The report, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, demonstrates that the nation's food safety system, created when most foods were grown, prepared and consumed locally, needs a thorough overhaul to regulate an increasingly global food industry, top government health officials said Thursday.

“The system needs to be modernized to address the challenges and changes of the globalization of the food supply and rapid distribution chains,” said Dr. David Acheson, associate commissioner for foods at the Food and Drug Administration. “F.D.A. needs to do more inspections.”

Dr. Stephen F. Sundlof, director of the agency’s food center, agreed. “As supply chains get longer and longer,” Dr. Sundlof said, “there’s more opportunity to introduce contaminants that have a public health effect.”

The report is likely to deepen tensions between the F.D.A. and the Department of Agriculture, which have long been rivals in overseeing food safety. An Agriculture Department campaign begun in 2006 to reduce salmonella contamination of meat and poultry has been successful, the report noted. But Dr. Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the C.D.C.’s division of foodborne diseases, suggested that whatever progress the department had made in improving overall food safety might have been lost by the F.D.A.

“Produce is a more important contributor to the overall problem than it used to be,” said Dr. Tauxe, referring to spinach and other foods regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.

The disease control centers’ report said that in 2008, 16 of every 100,000 people in the United States had laboratory-confirmed cases of salmonella infections. That translates into about 48,000 serious illnesses, since individual stool samples are generally sent to laboratories only when someone is suffering a severe bout. In 2005, the figure was 14 people per 100,000, or about 42,000 cases of laboratory-confirmed salmonella infections.

The apparent increase in salmonella is not statistically significant and could be a statistical fluke, according to the disease control centers. Indeed, across a range of a variety of foodborne illnesses, there has been no statistically significant change over the past three years in the share of the nation’s population that has been severely sickened by food.

Roughly 76 million people in the United States suffer foodborne illnesses each year, 300,000 are hospitalized, and 5,000 die, according to C.D.C. estimates. Children younger than 4 are sickened by food more than those in any other age group, but adults over age 50 suffer more hospitalizations and death as a result of food-related infections.

The New York Times
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