SAN FRANCISCO — Despite the recent E. coli spinach outbreak, food may be safer now than at any other time in the last decade, with illness occurring at record-low rates, new federal statistics show.

Consumers get part of the credit, for handling food more safely at home, but experts say the biggest improvement came from better industry controls and inspections.

"The food is actually cleaner to begin with," said Dr. Robert Tauxe, top food scientist at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Certain germs have dramatically declined, and "that to me is really solid progress."

However, the trend could reverse in coming years if fruit and vegetable growers do not address problems like those that led to the spinach scare, Tauxe and others said.

"The meat and poultry industry has made great strides. The produce industry has a long way to go to catch up," said Michael Doyle, a microbiologist who heads the University of Georgia’s Center for Food Safety.

On Friday, the Food and Drug Administration lifted its warning on spinach except for specific brands packaged on certain dates. Consumers should continue to avoid spinach recalled by Natural Selection Foods LLC of San Juan Bautista and four companies that it supplied.

The recall covered 34 brands bearing "Best if Used By" dates of Aug. 17 through Oct. 1, so most of it is thought to be out of the food supply now.

The spinach sickened 187 people in 26 states, hospitalized 97 of them and killed one. Outbreaks typically are far larger than the number of lab-confirmed cases reported to federal officials, Tauxe noted.

Germs in food make 76 million Americans sick, send 323,000 to hospitals and kill 5,000 each year, the CDC estimates.
But the situation greatly improved over the last decade, according to illness statistics the agency reported Friday at a conference of the American Society for Microbiology.

In 2005, compared with the 1996-98 period when the CDC’s FoodNet tracking system began, illnesses were down for virtually every major germ.

CDC estimates the declines as follows: yersinia, 49 percent; shigella, 43 percent; listeria, 32 percent; campylobacter, 30 percent; the dangerous O157 strain of E. coli, 29 percent; and salmonella, 9 percent.

Only vibrio, a germ spread through raw oysters, rose significantly – 41 percent.

Campylobacter and salmonella sicken the most people, usually through raw or undercooked poultry or eggs. Yersinia can taint raw meats, seafood and dairy products. Listeria causes problems in lunchmeats and soft cheeses.

E. coli outbreaks typically have involved undercooked ground meat. But in recent years, the germ has increasingly been linked to produce, as has a certain strain of salmonella.

"The problems have changed," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest. "A decade ago, beef was at the top of our list of concern. Now we’re more concerned about produce."

Carol Tucker-Foreman, food policy director for Consumer Federation of America, agreed.

"Fresh fruits and vegetables are generally not subject to any regulatory standards," and the FDA has only voluntary "guidance" for growers to follow, she said.

She also notes that most of the decline in illnesses occurred in the earlier part of the decade, and that gains in more recent years have been smaller.

"Some of the gains have declined in the last two years," she said. She is most worried about certain strains of salmonella and wants the government to make further strides against listeria.

Tauxe shares her concerns.

"There are some very antibiotic-resistant strains in ground beef" that are becoming more prevalent, he noted. With food safety, "the job’s not done with the animals, and we’re just starting that with produce."

Plant pathologists who traditionally have worried about things like rust and blights that reduce crop yields "now need to start thinking about the spread of things like E. coli and salmonella," Tauxe said.

Environmental microbiologists also have to look at ways these germs are spreading in streams and soil, he said.

To avoid illness, people should not consume unpasteurized milk, or raw or undercooked oysters, poultry or meat and follow safe food handling practices.

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