MELVILLE, N.Y. – New statistics on 2008 food-borne illnesses show that the same rogues’ gallery of five infectious pathogens remain at the core of food-related sickenings, and although estimates on the number of illnesses have not worsened, they haven’t improved.

Nationwide, annual estimates hold steady at 87 million cases of food-related illnesses, 371,000 hospitalizations and 5,700 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Between 1996 and 2004, sickenings had been on a decline because of improvements in meat and poultry safety, which grew out of aggressive efforts by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But that drop has been offset by illnesses linked to tainted produce. Recent outbreaks have been caused by tainted spinach, lettuce, alfalfa sprouts, peppers and peanuts.

Dr. Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the CDC’s division of food-borne diseases, called for new farm-to-fork efforts to evaluate food safety, including improved methods to quickly trace the source of contaminated produce.

Food poisonings still exceed national goals established by the CDC, benchmarks experts had hoped to reach in 2008. The agency had set a goal of seven illnesses per 100,000 people for salmonella-related sickenings, but the ratio last year was more than double at 16 illnesses per 100,000. The data didn’t include figures from the tainted-peanuts outbreak, which sickened nearly 700 people in 46 states and is blamed in nine deaths.

The briefing drew on a study released Friday in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, a publication of the CDC, which analyzed food-borne illnesses in 10 states. The states serve as statistical barometers of food-related illnesses nationwide.

“Food-borne illnesses continue to be a major concern of public health departments,” said Dr. Maria Torroella Carney, health commissioner in Nassau County, N.Y.

It’s important all public health agencies combat food-borne disease, added Dr. Humayun Chaudhry, health commissioner in Suffolk County, N.Y., who said pathogens that cause the illnesses are ubiquitous. “Complacency … by food vendors and restaurants, weekend barbecue enthusiasts or regulatory bodies can easily reverse gains and lead to devastating consequences.”

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