Listeria food poisoning increased slightly in 2003, according to a consumer group that said the Bush administration stalled and then changed regulations aimed at curbing the sometimes deadly infection.
Citing data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Consumer Federation of America said there were 3.3 cases for every 1 million people in 2003, compared with 2.7 cases per million in 2002. Data for 2004 are not yet available.
“The Bush administration’s USDA, while arguing that its actions are based on sound science, actually has developed rules based on sympathetic science, science that’s driven by industry convenience and political influence,” Carol Tucker Foreman, the author of the consumer group’s report, told reporters Tuesday.
Foreman said she was not asserting a link between the Agriculture Department’s approach and the 2003 increase in food poisoning cases. “I’m just saying that the two events occurred together,” she said.
Government and industry officials said the report ignores other government data showing that meat and poultry products are safer. In 2003, tests turned up 25 percent fewer cases of listeria contamination, and recalls dropped to 14 from 40 the previous year.
“The progress made in enhancing ready-to-eat meat and poultry safety under the Bush administration is indisputable,” said J. Patrick Boyle, president of the American Meat Institute, an industry trade group. “These improved product safety data are apparently infuriating to those who clearly have a political ax to grind.”
CDC officials said the 2003 increase in cases of infection from listeria food poisoning was not necessarily alarming.
“For listeria, which is a relatively rare disease, you have to look at trends over several years and not let yourself weigh too heavily on data from just one year,” said Patricia Griffin, the center’s chief of foodborne diseases epidemiology. “We would say that it’s something to watch.”
Listeria is frequently associated with hot dogs, deli meats and soft cheese such as feta or brie or Mexican-style cheeses such as queso fresco. It spreads easily and can thrive for weeks or months in the refrigerator. The bacteria can be killed by fully cooking meat.
Listeria causes an estimated 2,500 cases of food poisoning each year, according to CDC figures, and about 20 percent of the victims die.
Pregnant women are especially at risk, because infection can lead to miscarriage or stillbirth or infection of the newborn. Older people and others with weakened immune systems are also at risk. Symptoms include fever and upset stomach and, if infection spreads to the nervous system, headache, stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance or convulsions.
The outgoing Clinton administration proposed regulations in 2001 after a 22-state outbreak of listeria poisoning in 1998. Twenty-one people died, and about 100 others were sickened, after eating contaminated hot dogs and possibly deli meats made by Bil Mar Foods, a subsidiary of Sara Lee Corp.
The proposal called for more testing, particularly if a case were found, but was never implemented. Instead, the Bush administration established interim regulations three months ago allowing business to determine the frequency of testing.