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Other Food-Borne Diseases Pose Far More Danger than Mad Cow

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Dec. 31--WASHINGTON--In the week since mad cow disease was discovered in the United States, more than a million Americans were sickened by food they ate. About 6,000 became so ill they needed hospital treatment and nearly 100 people died, according to federal health estimates.

But mad cow disease wasn't the culprit. Indeed, not a single American is known to have contracted the human form of the disease from eating food in this country.

Instead, salmonella, E. coli, listeria and other dangerous bacteria routinely take a huge toll on public health, yet get little of the attention currently focused on the beef from one Holstein found infected with mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

"There is not enough attention to general food-borne diseases," said Dr. Christopher Braden, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's chief of outbreak response and surveillance in the food-borne disease branch. "While bovine spongiform encephalopathy is of concern, it's not the greatest public health concern we face in foodborne disease."

The annual toll from food-borne disease is staggering: 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths in the United States each year, according to CDC estimates.

Salmonella, for instance, caused 32,000 confirmed illnesses last year -- and many times that number were likely sickened by the bacteria but never had tests to confirm the infection.

"Certainly if this were a disease hitting the radar screen and it was the first time it had ever been discovered and there were 30,000 cases reported, it would be an uproar," Braden said Tuesday.

Organisms that consumers may never have heard of cause many illnesses.

Campylobacter, a bacteria associated with raw or undercooked poultry, causes about 2 million cases of diarrhea, nausea and vomiting each year, and sometimes causes life-threatening infections or triggers rare immune system responses. Listeria monocytogenes, a cold-loving bacteria found in ready-to-eat lunch meats and hot dogs, causes about 2,500 illnesses a year and most of those people are so ill they are hospitalized. About 500 will die, the CDC estimates.

Brad Matthews of Raleigh, N.C., no longer takes it for granted that the food he eats is safe.

At age 27, he's been unable to work since July 2001, when he was hospitalized during a bout of foodborne illness caused by campylobacter. He recovered from the nausea and vomiting, but then developed Reiter's syndrome, a painful inflammation of the joints believed to be triggered by the bacteria.

"My future looked bright, and it just happened out of the blue," Matthews said Tuesday. The pain in his joints has made it impossible to drive, walk his dog or play the guitar.

The public needs to pay more attention, Matthews said. "I knew about these food-borne diseases, but I thought to myself it wouldn't happen to me," he said.

Food safety advocates hope the current furor over mad cow disease and calls for reform will help focus the attention of policy makers and the public on broader issues in farming and food manufacturing that could help reduce the number of people sickened by what they eat.

"I don't think mad cow is a public health crisis," said Carol Tucker Foreman, who was an assistant secretary of agriculture in charge of food safety during the Carter administration. "I do think we have a serious public health problem with regard to food-borne illness. And it's not just meat and poultry, but fresh fruit and vegetables, eggs and fish."

Foreman, who heads the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America, said the mad cow situation -- and efforts by regulators to locate the Holstein's birth herd -- has shown the need for a system that allows cattle to be traced.

"We've urged the USDA establish an animal trace back system for 20 years," she said. "Not only do you need to trace back an animal that has signs of mad cow disease, but you also could trace back an animal that has a gut full of E. coli 0157:H7."

Advocates also have urged for years that the USDA and FDA be given authority to order companies to recall tainted products. The current system only allows for voluntary company recalls, Foreman said.

USDA officials have said they didn't lose any time negotiating with the meat plant over launching the current recall of 10,400 pounds of meat from the infected Holstein and 19 others slaughtered with it. But Foreman said it can sometimes take days to get companies to agree on how much food they'll pull off the market.

From 1998 through 2000, nearly 109 million pounds of meat and meat products were recalled in the United States for problems ranging from contamination with dangerous bacteria to undercooking of ready-to-eat foods.

But just 24 percent of that meat -- 26 million pounds -- was ever recovered, according to an analysis of the most recent recall data available on the USDA's Web site. In 2000, just 17 percent of recalled meat was recovered, according to the data.

Foreman and Braden said more and better microbiological testing of all kinds is needed, as well as greater attention to good agricultural and manufacturing practices. The CDC also supports greater use of irradiation of meats and pasteurization of eggs as a way to reduce bacteria in those products, Braden said.


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(c) 2003, Detroit Free Press. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.

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