updated 2/28/2005 6:49:42 PM ET 2005-02-28T23:49:42

Fewer cases of contamination from a dangerous strain of E. coli turned up in ground beef last year, even as the government increased its testing.

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The bacteria, spread mainly when people eat undercooked ground beef, infects about 73,000 people and kills 61 each year, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The organism can cause bloody diarrhea and kidney failure.

Of 8,010 ground beef samples analyzed last year, 0.17 percent tested positive, compared with from 0.3 percent the year before, the Agriculture Department reported Monday. That is a 43 percent decline.

Federal inspectors at meat plants also increased the number of samples, which had been around 6,000 to 7,000 a year.

Agriculture Department officials credited efforts since 2002 to have plants update plans for guarding against tainted meat and changing plant operations after the government’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has reviewed those plans.

“When you look at the numbers from year to year, I don’t think it’s a matter of coincidence that these numbers have gone down,” said Merle Pierson, acting undersecretary for food safety.

He pointed out that the rate of infection also has dropped. According to CDC, the number of E. coli infections declined 36 percent from 2002 to 2003, the most recent dates for which figures are available.

Caroline Smith DeWaal, head of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said she is troubled by what the government is “not testing, which is imports, meat coming from state plants and also much of the meat coming out of retail stores.”

FSIS spokesman Steven Cohen said most ground beef is produced at plants and that retailers are increasingly buying already-packaged meat.

CDC officials say people can avoid infection by thoroughly cooking ground beef, avoiding unpasteurized milk and washing their hands.

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