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Associated Press

ATLANTA (AP) - Food poisoning from dangerous bacteria like E. coli and salmonella has dropped dramatically in the United States in just six years, suggesting that stepped-up measures to make the food supply safer are taking hold, the government said Thursday.

Preliminary data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show substantial declines in the rates of illness from six of seven major types of foodborne bacteria from 1996 to 2001.

The rate of E. coli fell 21 percent, salmonella 15 percent and listeria 35 percent. Shigella was down 35 percent, campylobacter 27 percent and yersinia 49 percent. Only vibrio - a germ that shows up in raw oysters - rose, climbing 83 percent.

Health officials said the improvement shows tougher regulations throughout the food system - including stricter inspections at slaughterhouses and in the seafood industry - are preventing tens of thousands of food poisoning infections a year.

"These data demonstrate that we are on the right track," Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said in Washington. "Modern, science-based food inspection systems have contributed to our ability to control pathogens during food processing."

In recent years, the CDC has estimated that 76 million Americans a year get food poisoning. The CDC did not give a new estimate Thursday.

In 1997, the government began putting less emphasis on spot checks and instead requiring seafood plants to show proof of steps taken to prevent contamination. The regulations were quickly expanded to cover meat.

Last year, the government imposed egg refrigeration requirements on supermarkets and restaurants. It also mandated that egg cartons be labeled with instructions for safe handling. Eggs and poultry are responsible for many cases of salmonella.

Health officials also credited stricter regulation of fruit and vegetable juice and imported food.

On the consumer end, experts said the decline in food poisoning may mean that Americans are paying better attention to food safety and taking such steps as cooking meat and eggs thoroughly.

"Preventing foodborne disease requires efforts all along the chain - farm, processing, slaughter and in the kitchen," said the CDC's Dr. Robert Tauxe. "I think that we are headed in the right direction."

The food poisoning rates are calculations based in part on the number of infections reported in various parts of the country. They are collected through FoodNet, a network of laboratories around the country.

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