- A harmful bacteria that can cause food
poisoning may be twice as prevalent as previously thought, federal health
- As many as 40,000 people a year may become
ill from the E. coli 0157:H7 bacteria, according to Centers for Disease
Control statistics expected to be released early next year. The CDC attributes
the increase to a change in its methodology for counting illnesses related
to E. coli.
- In addition, other data is expected to
show that recent efforts to combat E. coli are not as effective as believed.
The number of reported E. coli outbreaks, which can range from as few as
two illnesses or many hundreds linked to a single source, jumped 50% this
year after falling for two years, according to CDC statistics obtained
by USA TODAY.
- Exposure to E. coli 0157:H7 can cause
severe cramping or diarrhea. It can lead to kidney failure and death.
- Undercooked or raw hamburger has been
implicated in nearly all documented outbreaks.
- This year there have been 32 outbreaks
of E. coli 0157:H7 and one of another hazardous strain. That is up from
22 outbreaks in 1997 but about equal to earlier levels.
- Meat industry officials had cited the
1997 decrease as evidence that new federal efforts to combat food poisoning
were working. The new statistics weaken that argument.
- ''People were starting to think we had
a system that was all of a sudden working. That's not the case,'' says
Donna Rosenbaum, scientific adviser to the consumer group Safe Tables Our
- The outbreak statistics capture just
a fraction of the 20,000 to 40,000 people who may be infected with E. coli
each year. Since 1996, the federal government has been gathering information
on people who go to the hospital or see a doctor because of diarrhea. From
that data, officials estimate the number of illnesses.
- The CDC has been using estimates of 10,000
to 20,000 people a year made ill by E. coli. Those figures were based on
sampling done in a single county in Washington state where an E. coli outbreak
in 1993 affected 700 people.
- Although the data are preliminary, two
CDC officials have quoted the illness figures in discussions with industry
and consumer groups. Paul Mead, a medical epidemiologist with the CDC,
confirms he has used the 40,000 estimate but says research will not be
complete until early next year.
- Likewise, the outbreak statistics are
not final. Mead attributes the increase to improved surveillance by the