According to a government report released this spring, the incidence of the four major foodborne illnesses -- campylobacter, salmonella, listeria and E. coli -- declined by 21% between 1996 and 2001.
However, whether the incidence of these four ailments is lower than 10 or 20 years ago isn't clear. The government has only been collecting statistics on foodborne illnesses since 1996.
It was about a decade earlier that foodborne illness became a major concern for the U.S. supermarket industry. In March and April 1985, salmonella-contaminated milk from a dairy plant owned by Jewel Food Stores, then a division American Food Stores, Salt Lake City, made an estimated 200,000 people sick in six Midwestern states. Although a class-action suit for punitive damages against the company failed in court, Jewel paid more than $50 million in compensatory damages to about 15,000 of those made sick in what has remained the largest salmonella outbreak in U.S. history.
At first, food safety was a subject the supermarket was happier to avoid than confront. In 1990, after sitting in on a sparsely attended session of the topic at an industry convention, an SN editor noted, "Trade association executives have told me that food-safety conferences are a tough sell. We tend to avoid discussion of microorganisms and lawsuits."
Still, the supermarket industry began gradually to initiate programs not merely to ensure the safety of the food it sold, but also to inform consumers about what they could do to protect themselves. Led by the Food Marketing Institute, Washington, and the American Meat Institute, Arlington, Va., the industry joined with the government, the scientific community and consumer advocates to launch Fight Bac! (bac as in bacteria), an ambitious public-service campaign on food-safety awareness.
Outside experts give the industry high grades for their efforts. Dr. James Denton, a professor at the Center for Excellence in Poultry Science at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, Ark., told SN, "I think supermarkets have worked at this constantly since the early 1990s. I know they're making a real strong effort in this area."
Dr. Elsa Morano, undersecretary for food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said, "I think supermarkets have done a good job. They've done quite a bit."
Which is not to say that anyone believes the war against foodborne illnesses is over. For example, the incidence of salmonella declined 15% from 1996-2001 to 15.1 cases per million, but the national health objective set by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is to get that number down to 6.8 cases per million by 2010, or a more than 50% decline in less than a decade.
To get there, experts stress the need for more education. Dr. Jill Hollingsworth, vice president, food-safety programs, FMI, said, "There's always more we can do. We're in the final stages of putting together a training program for store associates that will include a test and certification program."