by Richard Knox
On any given day, more than 130,000 Americans endure the miseries of what we often call food poisoning. It might be from salmonella in the salad, campylobacter in the chicken or vibrio in the shellfish.
The nation's record in preventing foodborne illnesses is decidedly mixed, according to the latest annual report card from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Taken together, cases of a half-dozen common infections have dropped by 23 percent since 1996. But overall progress has stalled over the past five years.
And worst of all, the nation is going backward in preventing salmonella - the most common infection and the leading cause of hospitalization and death among the foodborne illnesses.
Salmonella cases haven't declined over the past 15 years, and since 2006 have actually gone up 10 percent. More than a million Americans have a bout of salmonella each year - more than 3,000 every day.
"The bottom line is that food-borne illness, particularly salmonella, is still far too common," says CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden.
Salmonella is tough to beat. Dr. Christopher Braden, the CDC's chief of foodborne, waterborne and environmental diseases, told Shots it's partly because there are so many different types of salmonella, with different growth habits and predilections. Also, salmonella can taint so many different things we like to eat: meat, eggs, poultry, vegetables, fruits, nuts and even processed foods.
"A lot of salmonella types have several different niches," Braden says, "so if you control one you're not necessarily controlling them all."
The war on salmonella is necessarily a multifront battle. For instance, cases of Salmonella enteritidis - the bacterium that sickened more than 50,000 Americans last summer and resulted in the recall of a half-billion eggs - have gone up 76 percent over the past 15 years.
New Food and Drug Administration rules governing shell eggs may reduce that trend, but officials say it's too soon to tell.
Another front in the salmonella battle involves poultry. But one detail in the new report shows how intractable the germ can be. New federal standards that will go into effect next month will reduce the "allowable contamination" of broiler chickens at a given production facility to 7.5 percent from 20 percent.
What about zero percent? Producing chicken free of bacterial contamination is not deemed an achievable goal by the feds. Braden says that underscores how important it is for restaurants and home cooks to be careful in handling raw poultry to prevent salmonella from contaminating other foods.
One success story that keeps officials optimistic is the sharp decline in cases of a nasty bug called E. coli O157:H7. It can cause intestinal bleeding, severe anemia and kidney failure. "The societal cost of a single fatal case ... has been estimated at $7 million," the new report says.
Thanks largely to stiffer federal regulation of slaughterhouses, incidence of this E. coli infection has been cut in half since 1997.
But other types of E. coli infection may be increasing. The CDC says U.S. children now have a higher incidence of dangerous coli infections other than the older O157 type - the first time this has been documented nationally.
So far the U.S. has not recorded any native infections of the virulent E. coli infection now afflicting northern Europe, called O104:H4. But officials think it could be a matter of time before something like it is seen here.
The CDC report finds encouragement in the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010, which gives the FDA "much needed authority" to regulate produce, recall contaminated foods and key an eye on imports. The law is also supposed to improve the CDC's surveillance of contaminated foods and capacity to investigate outbreaks.
But Congress has yet to appropriate any money to implement the new law, and congressional Republicans want to cut the FDA budget.