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July 31, 2012

Federal data: Little progress in fighting food-borne illnesses

WASHINGTON — Little progress has been made in combating many types of food-borne illnesses in recent years, according to new federal data, an outcome that food safety advocates say underscores the need to put into place the landmark food-safety bill signed by President Barack Obama more than a year ago.

The most recent figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that the rates of infections linked to four out of five key pathogens it tracks — salmonella, vibrio, campylobacter and listeria — remained relatively steady or increased from 2007 through 2011. The exception is a strain of E. coli, which has been tied to fewer illnesses in the same time frame.

The results frustrated consumer advocates, who along with industry groups pushed for passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act, which empowers the Food and Drug Administration to prevent food-borne illnesses instead of simply reacting to them. Obama signed the legislation in January 2011 after a string of food-borne outbreaks shook consumer confidence in the nation's food supply.

But the administration has not met the deadlines for releasing draft rules needed to implement key provisions of the law, including one that would mandate that food imported into this country meet the same safety standards as food produced domestically.

"Everyone was hoping that this new food safety law would be in place and we'd start seeing improvements by now," said Erik Olson, a director at the Pew Health Group. "What these CDC numbers show is that unless new protections are put into place, millions of Americans are going to continue to get sick from contaminated food."

Unlike last year, the CDC data were released without reaching out to key stakeholders who typically are notified in advance. Instead, the charts and graphs were quietly posted online Friday. The data are compiled annually to show trends for infections commonly transmitted through food and to guide policy decisions.

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