Eggs Make Nearly
900,000 Americans
Sick Each Year
By Julie Vorman
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Nearly 900,000 Americans fall ill each year from eggs contaminated with salmonella, a number vastly larger than the cases reported by doctors, the U.S. Agriculture Department said Thursday.
The estimate was calculated by government and university scientists for a USDA report that is part of the Clinton administration's stepped-up campaign against foodborne illness. Using data from industry, college researchers and the government, the report estimated that 883,705 Americans contract salmonella from eggs each year. It calculated 2.3 million of 46.8 billion shell eggs produced annually in the United States are infected with the bacteria.
In 1996, there were 39,027 documented cases of salmonella poisoning linked to eggs, undercooked chicken and meat and other foods, according to figures previously collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But doctors and public health officials have always said the number of actual cases was much higher because many people do not seek medical treatment for diarrhea or stomach cramps. The estimate of nearly 900,000 annual cases of salmonella linked to eggs may be too low, said one consumer group. ``It sounds to me like their estimates are very conservative,'' said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety expert for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. ``We would have expected a somewhat higher number of egg-related cases based on some estimates that put total salmonella cases from all foods at 4 million annually.''
Salmonella typically lasts up to a week, and can be life-threatening for infants, the elderly or anyone with a weak immune system. It is considered the most common foodborne illness in the nation.
The USDA said it would use data in its new report to help find new ways to reduce the risk of salmonella from eggs. ``It is important to communicate the risks of foodborne illness from Salmonella Enteritidis in shell eggs and egg products in a proper context and helpful manner, with a well-thought-out and consistent message,'' said Catherine Wotecki, undersecretary of agriculture for food safety. Regulators have been puzzled at the increase in reported cases of salmonella since 1976 despite efforts by the egg industry to improve sanitation.
Last month, the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration said they would try to reduce the bacteria by changing egg processing, handling and storage procedures. The agencies, which share responsibility for regulating eggs, said they would consider requiring ``sell by'' dates on fresh eggs, strictly controlling the temperature in trucks carrying eggs to market and creating a nationwide surveillance program to track salmonella among flocks. Final regulations are expected by the end of the year.
The FDA also recently approved a new spray for farmers to use on baby chicks to destroy salmonella. Chicken processors already use chlorine rinses, high-pressure washes and cold temperature baths to kill bacteria on birds. Health officials have urged consumers to fully cook eggs to kill any salmonella, avoiding poached or sunnyside up dishes.

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