Food Sickens Millions Yearly

In the country considered to have the world's safest food supply, 76 million people are sickened, 325,000 are hospitalized and 5,000 die each year from food poisoning, according to new federal figures.

"These numbers confirm that the number of illnesses and deaths from contaminated food in the U.S. is unacceptably high," said Caroline Smith Dewaal of the Consumer Advocacy Center for Science in the Public Interest. "Consumers play a lottery every day when they eat."

Past reports estimated that foodborne diseases kill 9,000 Americans and sicken 33 million each year. The latest figures were released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Most of the difference between these estimates are due to the fact that we have better information for which to base the estimates. They do not reflect change," said Dr. Paul Mead, a CDC medical epidemiologist.

The more accurate estimates will help guide prevention efforts and assess the effectiveness of food safety regulations, the CDC said.

The nation is facing new challenges in fighting contamination as the number of food imports increase, Americans eat out more and eat more processed food involving more people and more preparation, the CDC said. All increase the chance for disease-producing, food-handling errors.

In addition, the number of people most vulnerable to foodborne disease, such as the elderly and people with weakened immune systems, is increasing.

President Clinton is pushing a $72 million food safety initiative that would increase the number of inspectors and checks of high-risk food products in the United States.

The National Food Processors Association said the more reliable data will help the industry determine where food safety risks lie.

"Deficiencies with factual statistics related to food safety and foodborne illness have been a persistent problem that has impeded research and made it difficult to conduct accurate risk assessments," the association said in a statement.

DeWaal's group and other consumer advocates say what's needed is a single food-safety agency. Today, 12 agencies oversee food-safety questions. Most are handled by the Agriculture Department, which is in charge of meat and poultry and certain fresh produce issues, and the Food and Drug Administration, which oversees most other foods.

"We need a single-food safety agency with a farm-to-table mission to reduce foodborne illness and death," DeWaal said. "The improvements that have been made so far aren't enough."

Written By Patricia J. Mays