CDC: Danger of Foodborne Illness Remains Serious in U.S.

by Paula Reid, CBS News Investigative Unit

The federal government still has a lot work to do in reducing foodborne illnesses in the United States, according to a report released today by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

While the federal government has made some progress on foodborne E. coli, the report states, improvement on reducing other pathogens remains stalled, leaving consumers at serious risk of illness or death from contaminated food.

"The federal government needs to figure out how to address this problem," said Chris Waldrop, director of The Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America.

The CDC said rates of Salmonella and Campylobacter, illnesses associated with consumption of raw or undercooked poultry have seen no meaningful improvement in the past three years, according to the report, while salmonella infections remain more than double the National Health Objective target rate.

The report says a pathogen - Listeria -- associated with ready-to-eat meat and poultry products and unpasteurized cheeses is responsible for the highest percentage of hospitalizations and deaths in the United States. In May 2000 President Clinton declared Listeria needed special attention following the famous "Ball Park Franks" outbreak. Yet, the CDC reports, Listeria is at its highest rate since 1999.

When contracted by pregnant women Listeria can result in a miscarriage or stillbirth. But for the fifth year in a row, the CDC said, the government has failed to meet the National Health Objective for reducing this threat.

Overall food safety is the responsibility of the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service and the FDA. Waldrop believes both are behind the times. "Both agencies laws are out of date and Congress and the Administration need modernize them so we can better prevent foodborne illness."

Although the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Services has developed new standards aimed at reducing pathogens, the standards must be released for notice and comment before they can be implemented. But the USDA has delayed their release for over a year. Waldrop said it is not clear why.

"They need to be released immediately," he said, "so the agency and the industry can ratchet up efforts to decrease contamination of poultry products."