"The news is mixed," Dr. Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases, said during a noon press briefing. "Some improvements were made, but substantial more work is needed."
Rates of illnesses due to Vibrio, a bacterial toxin found in shellfish, have actually spiked recently, the CDC noted.
The new report tracked patterns of foodborne illness outbreaks for 10 states. In 2013, the CDC's food poisoning reporting system identified 19,000 related infections, 4,200 hospitalizations, and 80 deaths among the 48 million residents of these states.
Salmonella remains the most frequent cause of food poisoning, accounting for 38 percent of all cases, Tauxe said. Second was the Campylobacter bacterium, which accounted for 35 percent of foodborne infections. Both Salmonella and Campylobacter can contaminate meat, chicken and vegetables, Tauxe said.
But there was some good news: In 2013, the rate of Salmonella infections fell by 9 percent, compared with the rate in 2010-2012, the CDC report found. "This drop brings Salmonella down to the rate we saw back in 2006-2008," Tauxe noted.
But the current rate of Salmonella infections of 15 cases per 100,000 people is still below the goal of 11.4 per 100,000, which the CDC hopes to reach by 2020, he said.
Tauxe believes that some of the decline in Salmonella cases is the result of stopping a large outbreak of the bacteria in eggs in 2010, and subsequent U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulation mandating continuous refrigeration of eggs from farm to store.
On the other hand, however, Campylobacter infections have risen 13 percent since 2006-2008 and have remained stable over the past five years, Tauxe said.
Cases of illness from the Vibrio bacteria, found in raw shellfish, still account for only 1 percent of food poisoning cases but have been on the rise. "Vibrio infections have continued to increase as they have in the past," Tauxe said. "We are at the highest level observed since our tracking began in 1996."
Since 1996, Vibrio infections have climbed 168 percent, and cases rose by one-third in just the last three years, he said.
In addition, food poisoning from another bacteria, E. coli, have also been creeping up again after a period of decline. "The progress that has been noted since 2006-2008 [against E. coli] has stalled," he said. "Still, E. coli infections are 30 percent lower than they were in 1996."
Those most affected by food poisoning were children under 5 and adults 65 and older, according to Tauxe.
Dr. Marc Siegel, an associate professor of medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City, said the only way to curb food poisoning is with more and stricter regulation.
"We overtreat animals and people with antibiotics, which breeds strains of these bacteria that are resistant to drugs," he believes. "That's the problem right there."
Siegel also contends that the ways animals are raised -- in overcrowded conditions, often living in their own waste -- is a breeding ground for harmful bacteria.
"More oversight and testing for these bacteria is needed," he said.
To help reduce the threat of food poisoning, the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture say they are coming up with new plans and regulations, including new standards for cut-up poultry parts and ground chicken and turkey.
Consumers and the food industry also have a role to play, the CDC noted. Companies can use safer ingredients and can institute controls to prevent shipping contaminated food.
In addition, restaurants and consumers can follow safe practices in their kitchens. These include cooking meat to proper temperatures, washing produce, and preparing meat and fresh vegetables on different surfaces.
Consumers should also know there are risks to eating unpasteurized milk, soft cheeses made with unpasteurized milk and raw oysters, the agency added.
The report was published April 18 in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
For more information on avoiding food poisoning, visit Foodsafety.gov.
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