updated 4/10/2008 6:16:42 PM ET 2008-04-10T22:16:42

Americans didn’t suffer more food poisoning last year despite high-profile outbreaks involving peanut butter, pot pies and other foods.

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But it’s not getting better, either. Although there have been significant declines in certain food-borne illnesses since the late 1990s, all the improvements occurred before 2004, federal health officials said in a report released Thursday.

A food safety advocacy group called the report discouraging.

“We don’t consider this a success at all. We want to see these numbers going down,” said Nancy Donley, president of Safe Tables Our Priority, which was founded by victims of food poisoning.

The new numbers were collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It partners with state health departments to check labs in 10 states to count confirmed food poisonings caused by intestinal bugs.

Salmonella remained the most common cause of food poisoning, causing about 6,800 lab-confirmed illnesses. That translates to a rate of about 15 cases for every 100,000 people. Most experts say those numbers are lower than reality, however, because only a fraction of food poisoning cases get reported or confirmed by laboratories.

The researchers don’t address how many people died. But in general, the CDC estimates that 76 million people get sick, more than 300,000 are hospitalized, and 5,000 Americans die each year from food-borne illness

The new research appears in Thursday’s issue of the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

The most prominent food-borne illness outbreaks in 2007 included:

  • ConAgra’s recall of peanut butter products after its Peter Pan peanut butter was linked to a salmonella outbreak that sickened at least 625 people in 47 states.
  • ConAgra recalled its frozen Banquet pot pies after they were linked to at least 272 cases of salmonella in 35 states.
  • Scores of people, mostly toddlers, became ill after eating a snack food called Veggie Booty that contained a strain of salmonella. Robert’s American Gourmet Inc. markets that product.
  • At least eight people were reported ill from botulism after eating canned hot dog chili sauce made by Castleberry’s Food Co.

But many food poisoning cases aren’t linked to outbreaks, and news reports aren’t necessarily a clear gauge of disease prevalence, CDC researchers said.

“Outbreaks only account for a small portion of the cases,” explained Olga Henao, a CDC epidemiologist who co-authored the study.

Campylobacter was the next most common causes of illness, with a rate of about 13 cases per 100,0000, respectively. Like salmonella, campylobacter often sickens people through raw or undercooked poultry or eggs.

Those illnesses — along with shigella, E. coli, listeria and others — occurred at basically the same frequency as in the years 2004 through 2006, CDC officials said.

One form of E. coli, known as E. coli 0157, is among the most deadly forms of food-borne illness. The CDC counted 545 cases of E. coli 0157 in 2007, at a holding-steady rate of about one case per 100,000.

One infection that did jump in 2007 was cryptosporidium, a parasite often linked to contaminated water. Incidence of the these illness jumped 44 percent higher in 2007 compared with the 2004-2006 average, CDC officials said.

CDC counted 1,216 lab-confirmed cryptosporidium cases in the 10 states in 2007, translating to a rate of nearly three cases per 100,000. However, the higher numbers may reflect an increase in diagnostic testing that followed the licensing of a new treatment for the bug, CDC officials said.

Botulism is generally so rare that it’s not counted in the CDC surveillance system, partly because canned foods are considered so safe.

The episode with canned chili sauce was a surprise to health officials. So was the salmonella-peanut butter outbreak, said the CDC’s Dr. Robert Tauxe.

The 2007 outbreaks tied to processed foods “certainly indicate a need for more attention,” he said.

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