During the past 15 years, Salmonella infection, which causes more hospitalizations and deaths than any other type of germ found in food and $365 million in direct medical costs annually, has not declined. Yet during the same time, a dangerous type of E. coli STEC O157infection, responsible for the recall of millions of pounds of ground beef, has been cut almost in half, according to a new CDC Vital Sign report released today.

These trends are part of the Vital Signs report that summarizes 2010 data from CDC’s Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network (FoodNet), which serves as America’s report card for food safety by tracking whether nine of the most common infections transmitted through foods are increasing or decreasing.

“Although foodborne infections have decreased by nearly one-fourth in the past 15 years, more than 1 million people in this country become ill from Salmonella each year, and Salmonella accounts for about half of the hospitalizations and deaths among the nine foodborne illnesses CDC tracks through FoodNet,” said CDC Director Thomas R. Frieden, M.D., M.P.H. “Salmonella costs hundreds of millions of dollars in direct medical costs each year. Continued investments are essential to detect, investigate, and stop outbreaks promptly in order to protect our food supply.”

Salmonella can be challenging to address because so many different foods like meats, eggs, produce, and even processed foods, can become contaminated with it and finding the source can be challenging because it can be introduced in many different ways.

In response to that challenge, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which regulates eggs, produce and many processed foods, has developed new rules for the egg industry to follow under its recently expanded regulatory authorities.

“Last summer, FDA began implementing new shell egg safety requirements that should significantly reduce illnesses caused by Salmonella enteritidis in eggs,” said FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods Michael R. Taylor. “The recently enacted Food Safety Modernization Act wisely mandates a comprehensive approach to preventing illnesses from many types of Salmonella and a wide range of other contaminants that can make people sick. The current outbreak of E. coli in Europe demonstrates the importance of the new law, and FDA is committed to implementing the new law as fully as possible within available resources.”

29 deaths

In 2010, FoodNet sites, which include about 15 percent of the American population, reported nearly 20,000 illnesses, 4,200 hospitalizations and 68 deaths from nine foodborne infections. Of those, Salmonella caused more than 8,200 infections, nearly 2,300 hospitalizations and 29 deaths (54 percent of the total hospitalizations and 43 percent of the total deaths reported through FoodNet). CDC estimates that there are 29 infections for every lab-confirmed Salmonella infection.

The rate of E. coli O157 cases reported by FoodNet sites was 2 cases per 100,000 people in 1997 and, by 2010, had decreased to .9 cases per 100,000 people. The nearly 50 percent reduction in E. coli O157 incidence is considered significant when compared to the lack of change in Salmonella incidence. CDC credits the reduction in E. coli to improved detection and investigation of outbreaks through CDC’s PulseNet surveillance system, cleaner slaughter methods, testing of ground beef for E. coli, better inspections of ground beef processing plants, regulatory improvements like the prohibition of STEC O157 in ground beef and increased awareness by consumers and restaurant employees of the importance of properly cooking beef. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agency that regulates meat, has led these efforts.

“Thanks to our prevention based approach to food safety, as well as industry and consumer efforts, we have substantially reduced E. coli O157 illnesses,” said Elisabeth Hagen, M.D., Under Secretary for Food Safety in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “This report demonstrates that we’ve made great progress. However, far too many people still get sick from the food they eat, so we have more work to do. That is why we are looking at all options, from farm to table, in-order to make food safer and prevent illnesses from E. coli, salmonella, and other harmful pathogens.”

The pathogens included in the overall 2010 rate reduction of 23 percent when compared to 1996-1998 are: campylobacter, E. coli STEC O157, listeria, salmonella, vibrio and yersinia. Rates of vibrio infection were 115 percent higher than in 1996-1998, and 39 percent higher than in 2006-2008. Most vibrio infections are the result of eating raw or undercooked shellfish.

Everyone can help reduce foodborne illness by doing the following:

  •     Clean. Wash hands, cutting boards, utensils, and countertops.
  •     Separate. Keep raw meat, poultry, and seafood separate from ready-to-eat foods.
  •     Cook. Use a food thermometer to ensure that foods are cooked to a safe internal temperature: 145 F for whole meats (allowing the meat to rest for 3 minutes before carving or consuming), 160 F for ground meats, and 165 F for all poultry.
  •     Chill. Keep your refrigerator below 40 F and refrigerate food that will spoil.
  •     Report suspected illness from food to your local health department.
  •     Don’t prepare food for others if you have diarrhea or vomiting.
  •     Be especially careful preparing food for children, pregnant women, those in poor health, and older adults.