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The U.S. food supply is safer now than it was 100 years ago and probably safer than it was a decade ago, despite continuing reports of food-borne illnesses and product recalls, say federal food safety experts.

Food has always contained germs, and it has always posed a risk of illness. An estimated 76 million Americans, a quarter of the population, contract food-borne illness each year, but the vast majority of the cases are so mild that victims do not realize where the germs came from.

  • In 1996 the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) began an improved illness tracking system that has led to a significant decrease in the number of cases of many food-borne diseases.
  • However, while the rate of such illnesses declined, reports of contaminations and product recalls increased.
  • Public health experts say that technological advances, which allow officials to identify nationwide outbreaks, could account for the increase in reported food safety lapses.
  • Although food-borne illness might have been more prevalent in the past, regulators did not recall products as frequently because they could not identify an outbreak's source.

David Acheson, the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) associate commissioner for food safety, said, "If you are half-asleep, you are going to have less outbreaks because you don't recognize them."

Still, recent outbreaks have revealed new challenges for ensuring food safety.  According to many public health experts, the complexity of the U.S. food manufacturing system underscores the need for stricter government oversight, including more field inspectors.  Some advocates also say FDA lacks sufficient funding and authority to effectively regulate the food supply.

Source: Andrew Martin and Gardiner Harris, "Outbreaks Put Worry on the Table," New York Times, May 10, 2009.

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