(April 18) Last year’s outbreaks linked to fresh spinach and lettuce reversed a trend of a declining number of cases of E. coli illnesses in the U.S.

“Two years ago we were looking at what looked like a pretty good success story for E. coli O157,” Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Foodborne, Bacterial and Mycotic Diseases, said during an April 12 conference call.

The CDC released its Morbidity and Mortality Report the same day, which includes foodborne illness data collected for 10 states, representing 15% of the population.

According to the report, there were 2.3 cases of E. coli O157 per 100,000 people from 1996-98. Tauxe said massive reforms by the meat industry helped lower that figure to 0.9 per 100,000 by 2004, but it rebounded to 1.31 per 100,000 last year.

“The frequency of finding E. coli O157 is lower than ever,” he said of ground beef. “It’s quite stable. Certainly the outbreaks we saw last fall from fresh spinach and chopped lettuce are part of the picture.”

Tauxe said the goal is to cut the number of illnesses to fewer than one per 100,000 by 2010.

He said the produce industry could learn from the meat industry, which developed improved food safety procedures and shared information after a series of problems in the 1990s.

“When the ground beef problem was really at the forefront and had the full attention of the industry, public health and regulatory agencies, it took a number of years to find solutions that really worked to bring them into place and see the benefits to public health,” he said. “I hope we don’t have to wait a number of years (with produce), but it’s worth remembering that it takes time to develop new information and implement it.”