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Food sickens 48 million each year

3,000 of them die, US agency reports

By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post / December 16, 2010

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WASHINGTON — One in six Americans every year gets sick from food, and about 3,000 people die from those illnesses, according to new data released yesterday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“These are preventable diseases,’’ said Chris Braden, acting director of the division of foodborne, waterborne, and environmental diseases at the CDC. “We need to do more to lower the impact of these diseases in the US.’’

The numbers mark the first time the federal government has updated the estimates for foodborne illnesses since 1999, when a landmark study known as the Mead report offered a rough calculation of the extent of food poisoning in the United States.

The newest figures are lower than the 1999 report, which estimated that one in four Americans got sick from food each year and that 5,000 people died.

But the new data cannot be compared with the earlier figures and should not be interpreted to mean food poisoning is decreasing, CDC officials said. The agency used methods different from those applied in 1999, taking advantage of improved tracking of foodborne illnesses and laboratory techniques, Braden said.

Among the known food contaminants that can cause illness in humans, the leader is salmonella, which causes 28 percent of deaths from foodborne illness and 35 percent of hospitalizations, according to the new data.

The report estimates that 48 million Americans each year get sick from food. Of that, 9.4 million become ill after consuming food contaminated by at least one of 31 known bacteria, parasites, and other pathogens. But the remaining 38 million victims are poisoned by unknown pathogens, the report said.

Measuring the amount and types of foodborne illness is difficult, as many victims don’t seek medical help or even realize the cause was food, so their illnesses often go unreported.