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US Battle Against Food Contamination Yielding Some Good News, But Also Some New Worries

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A scorecard for the nation's fight against food contamination would show mixed results, researchers say; headway is being made against some common foes, but others are on the increase.

Infections in the United States from E. Coli and some types of salmonella bacteria were down in 2014, but some other types of salmonella as well as some lesser-seen pathogens were on the rise, a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed.

"The picture is mixed," said Dr. Patricia Griffin of the of the CDC's division of foodborne diseases. "Most of it is not good news."

Despite making progress against certain types of pathogens - reported infections from E. Coli and one common strain of salmonella were down in 2014 by about a third from 2006-2008 levels - there's been little improvement in curbing overall rates of salmonella and campylobacter, two infectious contaminants that cause the highest number of illnesses in people, the CDC says.

Another pathogen, vibrio - commonly linked to seafood - is also on the rise, it says.

There were around 19,000 infections, some 4,400 hospitalizations and 71 deaths linked to foodborne illnesses last year, according to the CDC's FoodNet tracking operation.

"Clearly more work needs to be done," says Griffin.

And the reported numbers don't accurately represent the extent of the danger, since the FoodNet system only covers around 15 percent of Americans, she notes, tracking nine known pathogens in just 10 U.S. states.

"We estimate that each year, one in six people in the United States gets sick from eating contaminated food," she says of the estimated full numbers beyond what FoodNet can track.

The full numbers reveal around 48 million Americans become ill from consuming food, 128,000 of whom require hospitalization.

Foodborne diseases prove fatal for 3,000 people annually, well above what the limited FoodNet figures suggest.

The actual number of infections is likely much greater, Griffen says, because many people who come down with foodborne illnesses recover without being tested or seeing a doctor.

For every case of salmonella confirmed through a lab test, there are around 30 people who've been infected but never tested or confirmed the infection, she estimates.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to issue final rules in the coming months for a Food Safety Modernization Act, which will usher in an extensive number of food safety reforms.

"The [CDC] data released today provide encouragement, but still tell us the road is long," says Dr. Kathleen Gensheimer of the FDA's Coordinated Outbreak Response and Evaluation Team.

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