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CDC lowers estimates on foodborne illnesses

Foodservice industry awaits fate of food-safety bill in Senate

Citing improved detection and reporting methods, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released this week revised, and significantly lower, estimates of the number of people sickened and killed annually from foodborne illnesses.

CDC officials released the new figures in a week when the U.S. Senate is weighing passage of a sweeping federal food-safety bill supported by the National Restaurant Association and National Council of Chain Restaurants, among other foodservice trade groups.

The Atlanta-based CDC said its “most comprehensive” analysis in 11 years led to new estimates that foodborne pathogens sicken about 48 million Americans annually, hospitalizing 128,000 and killing 3,000. Previously, based on 1999 estimates, the CDC had said such pathogens annually sickened 76 million people, hospitalized 325,000 and killed 5,000.

“We've made progress in better understanding the burden of foodborne illness, and unfortunately far too many people continue to get sick from the food they eat,” said Dr. Thomas Frieden, the CDC’s director. “These estimates provide valuable information to help CDC and its partners set priorities and further reduce illnesses from food.”

Despite such progress, there is still much that is not known in the area of foodborne illness, CDC officials said.

They acknowledged that of the total estimate of 48 million illnesses annually 9.4 million illnesses, or about 20 percent, are due to 31 known foodborne pathogens. However, the remaining 38 million illnesses result from unspecified agents, which include known agents without enough data to make specific estimates, agents not yet recognized as causing foodborne illness, and agents not yet discovered.

The CDC said it also has revised downward the estimated number of cases of norovirus illnesses attributed to contaminated food each year, which is now believed to be about 5.5 million cases compared with earlier estimates of about 9.2 million cases. CDC officials said it is now known that most norovirus is not spread through adulterated food.

Among the new information released Wednesday by CDC was that data from its FoodNet surveillance system indicate that illnesses from key pathogens — including E.coli O157, Listeria and Salmonella — have decreased by 20 percent during the past decade. However, the CDC added that the pathogens tracked by FoodNet, which are considered among the most dangerous, make up only a portion of the illnesses included in the new estimates.

Key estimates or information related to illnesses from known pathogens released by the CDC Wednesday include the following findings:

• Salmonella was the leading cause of estimated hospitalizations and deaths, responsible for about 28 percent of deaths and 35 percent of hospitalizations due to known pathogens transmitted by food.
• About 90 percent of estimated illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths were due to seven pathogens: Salmonella, norovirus, Campylobacter, Toxoplasma, E.coli O157, Listeria and Clostridium perfringens.
• Nearly 60 percent of estimated illnesses, but a much smaller proportion of severe illness, was caused by norovirus.

FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg, in the announcement, used the attention to lobby for passage of the provisions in the food-safety legislation now before the Senate.

“Foodborne illnesses and deaths are preventable, and as such, are unacceptable," Hamburg said. “We must, and can, do better by intensifying our efforts to implement measures that are prevention-oriented and science-based.”

She said the FDA and other federal agencies are “moving down this path as quickly as possible under current authorities, but eagerly await passage of new food-safety legislation that would provide us with new and long overdue tools to further modernize our food safety program.”

The full report of the revised estimates is available online at http://www.cdc.gov/eid.

Food-safety bill supported

Foodservice trade groups, while digesting the new CDC estimates, are watching the U.S. Senate for signs of the fate of a food-safety bill that has taken two years to wind through the system.

Senate Bill 501, among other things, would empower the Food and Drug Administration to order recalls of tainted foods; increase inspections of domestic and foreign food facilities; require the FDA to draft new rules for the growers and processors of higher-risk fruits and vegetables; and create stricter food-safety standards for imported foods. It is endorsed by both the NRA and the NCCR, among other industry organizations.

SB 501 was approved by the Senate Nov. 30 on a 73-25 vote and sent to the House of Representatives. However, a procedural issue — the bill called for the creation of taxes, which, by law, can only originate in bills from the House — prompted House leadership to attach all the provisions of SB 501 to House of Representatives Bill 3802.

HR 3802, a continuing appropriations bill, calls for sustaining the funding of the government at current levels through its latest fiscal year, which ends in September 2011. It was approved by the full House 212-206 on Dec. 8 and sent on to the Senate.

However, the Senate released details Dec. 14 of its own appropriations measure — an omnibus spending bill that addresses funding levels for specific branches and projects — that also includes the food-safety provisions of SB 501.

Passage of the food-safety provisions is not guaranteed, however, despite earlier support for the changes in both chambers, as Senate Republicans reportedly are trying to block the omnibus bill in favor of a stopgap funding measure ending early in 2011, when they will assume control of the House and gain six additional seats in the Senate.

Contact Alan J. Liddle at [email protected]m.

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