updated 10/15/2003 6:04:17 PM ET 2003-10-15T22:04:17

After pushing several meatpackers to update plans to prevent ground beef contamination, Agriculture Department inspectors are seeing a drop-off in the number of samples tainted with E. coli.

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Elsa Murano, undersecretary of food safety, said the department has spent the last year getting 1,000 meat plants, from very small to large, to improve efforts to keep meat free of the potentially deadly bacteria by adding steps like hot water rinses and organic acid washes to processing.

As a result, she said, inspectors found 0.32 percent of 4,432 samples of hamburger meat tested positive for E. coli from January to August this year. That compares to 0.78 percent of samples testing positive for the same period in 2002 and 0.84 percent in 2001.

The agency has been testing 7,000 samples yearly since 2001. Prior to that, it checked 6,000 samples per year.

The numbers “indicate that our initiatives are making a difference that will hopefully translate into fewer cases of illness” from E. coli, Murano said.

The decline is significant when considering that the agency switched to using a sensitive test for the bacteria that can detect a single germ of E. coli in a 325-gram sample of hamburger, she said.

Department inspectors plan to review 1,500 other plants by next year. The agency began to check processors’ meat safety plans last year after an E. coli outbreak sickened 17 people. ConAgra Beef eventually recalled 19 million pounds of meat linked to the illnesses.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that every year, 61 deaths and 73,000 illnesses are caused by E. coli. Children and the elderly are especially vulnerable to the bacteria.

Murano acknowledged the number of illnesses associated with the bacteria has been steady over the last few years but said tainted meat is not always the source. Some infections stem from eating contaminated foods such as sprouts and lettuce, she said.

The government tallies the numbers of deaths and illnesses from E. coli without specifying which foods were involved.

“It makes it difficult for us to know if our programs are making a difference in public health,” Murano said.

Carol Tucker Foreman, a food safety advocate for Consumer Federation of America, said she wondered why the number of illnesses associated with E. coli has not followed the downward trend in positive samples.

Still, “I think the industry has gotten the message,” Tucker Foreman said. “They don’t want to have their product recalled.”

Dan Murphy, a spokesman for the American Meat Institute, an industry group, said he expects illnesses and deaths soon will decline. Right now, they remain steady because there is greater public awareness about food poisoning, and doctors are aware to look for symptoms of it, he said.

“You have now much more aggressive searching on the clinical side to discover cases that can be linked” to E. coli, he said. “We now know more about the pathology. We now know more about the progression of symptoms. As a result, there’s far more consciousness about the entire ramifications surrounding a case of E. coli.”

Symptoms of severe E. coli poisoning include bloody diarrhea and abdominal cramps. People with mild infections may not show any symptoms.

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