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020940 Group Urges U.S. to Curb Foodborne Illnesses

September 22, 2002

New York (Reuters) - Each year in the United States, approximately 5,000 deaths and 76 million illnesses are caused by food poisoning, according to a report from the consumer advocacy group, Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

The main culprits seem to be seafood dishes and produce, according to the report, which focused on 2,472 outbreaks and 90,355 cases of foodborne illness that occurred between 1990 and 2002. Seafood dishes were responsible for 539 outbreaks throughout the US and 6,781 cases of illness. Fruits, vegetables and other produce items and dishes, however, caused the largest number of illnesses--18,084 cases and 293 outbreaks, the report indicates.

"Produce is causing a surprising number of food poisoning outbreaks," CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith Dewaal told Reuters Health. For the most part, the blame for such outbreaks does not lie with the consumer, she added.

"While consumers should always wash their fresh fruits and vegetables, it's really up to the government to clean the problem up at the source," she said.

In the report, eggs and egg dishes, beef and beef dishes and poultry and poultry dishes were each responsible for 277, 251 and 235 outbreaks, respectively, and more than 28,000 combined cases of food poisoning.

Finally, 330 outbreaks and 11,500 cases of illness in the CSPI database were traced back to various types of salads, pizzas and other foods with multiple ingredients.

Many outbreaks may in part be due to faulty reporting of foodborne illness outbreaks and incomplete surveillance, as well as to inefficiencies inherent in the federal system, which holds multiple agencies responsible for various aspects of food safety, the CSPI reports.

Currently, at least 10 federal agencies--including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA)--are directly or indirectly involved in some type of food safety effort including surveillance, outbreak management, research and education.

Further, although state and local health departments are largely responsible for investigating foodborne-illness outbreaks, they are not required to report all outbreaks to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which is responsible for nationwide surveillance.

For these reasons, Smith Dewaal and her colleagues are urging Congress to create a single agency responsible for food safety that will have "greater authority than current regulatory agencies have."

"It's silly to have USDA regulate cows but FDA regulate their milk," Smith Dewaal said in a statement. "A single agency would not only bridge regulatory gaps, but it would end regulatory redundancies."

The CSPI report, which is based on a compilation of 1990-2002 data from the CDC, state health departments, medical journals and newspapers, also recommends that the CDC close the remaining gaps in its foodborne illness reporting and surveillance system.

In short, "CSPI is calling for a farm-to-table approach to food safety," Smith Dewaal told Reuters Health.

Commenting on the report, Dr. Philip Tierno, director of clinical microbiology and diagnostic immunology at the New York University Medical Center, said that consumers should "consider everything possibly contaminated and act accordingly."

In particular, people should cook their food thoroughly--making sure hamburger meat, for example, reaches an internal temperature of 180 degrees--and they should avoid cross contamination of kitchen surfaces and utensils. Cross contamination occurs when bacteria from one source is transferred to another, such as when a cutting board used for meat is inadequately washed before it is used for salad items.

Tierno also advised that people never eat raw foods, that all fruits and vegetables--which "are often overlooked"--be washed in a mild vinegar or lemon juice solution or in a diluted hydrogen peroxide mixture, and that leftover foods be reserved and reheated only once.

"Consumers can help themselves a great deal if they use common sense and are aware," Tierno said.


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