San Francisco Despite the recent E. coli spinach outbreak, food may be safer now than at any other time in the last decade, with illness occurring at record-low rates, new federal statistics show.
Consumers get part of the credit, for handling food more safely at home, but experts say the biggest improvement came from better industry controls and inspections.
"The food is actually cleaner to begin with," said Dr. Robert Tauxe, top food scientist at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Certain germs have declined dramatically, and "that to me is really solid progress."
However, the trend could reverse in coming years if fruit and vegetable growers do not address problems like those that led to the spinach scare, Tauxe and others said.
"The meat and poultry industry has made great strides. The produce industry has a long way to go to catch up," said Michael Doyle, a microbiologist who heads the University of Georgia's Center for Food Safety.
On Friday, the Food and Drug Administration lifted its warning on spinach except for specific brands packaged on certain dates. Consumers should continue to avoid spinach recalled by Natural Selection Foods LLC of San Juan Bautista and four companies that it supplied.
The spinach sickened 187 people in 26 states, hospitalized 97 of them and killed one.
Such outbreaks typically are far larger than the number of lab-confirmed cases reported to federal officials, Tauxe noted.