From Bloomberg News:

Food safety in the U.S. is no longer improving, highlighting a need to re-evaluate the way an American meal makes its way from farm to table, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

Rates of salmonella have shown the least improvement of several food-borne illnesses the agency tracks, according to its annual report released today. The agency also announced that in response, it will increase capacity at its division overseeing incidents of food poisoning.

The CDC data come as Congress considers bills that would reshape the food safety system and require more preventive action. The issue has gained President Barack Obama’s attention and driven proposals to create a stand-alone food agency outside the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Food safety has also inflicted economic damage to companies from Sears Holding Corp., which operates Kmart stores, to Kraft Foods Inc.

"This year’s report confirms a very important concern, especially with two high-profile Salmonella outbreaks in the last year," Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the CDC’s Division of Foodborne, Bacterial and Mycoctic Diseases, said in a statement. "We recognize that we have reached a plateau in the prevention of food-borne disease and there must be new efforts to develop and evaluate food safety practices," Tauxe said.

Food poisoning strikes 76 million Americans every year, with 300,000 ending up in the hospital and 5,000 dying, the CDC says. Salmonella infections can be fatal in the young and elderly.

Officials last month recalled 1 million pounds of pistachios suspected of possible salmonella contamination. A peanut-linked Salmonella outbreak has sickened hundreds and killed nine since late 2008. As of April 8, 3,900 peanut-linked products had been voluntarily recalled by their producers, including Whole Foods and Wal-Mart Bakery.

The massive salmonella-linked recalls of the last year have brought angry families to Capitol Hill to protest current safety standards and share worries about what they can safely feed their children. The outcry has prompted members of Congress to re-introduce bills to overhaul the food safety system.

These lawmakers argue that the system is geared to respond after an outbreak, when it should be structured to catch contamination before it reaches consumers.

Sen. Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who has worked on food safety issues for years, introduced a bill that would increase food safety inspections, give the FDA greater access to records and testing results, and allow the FDA to mandate the recall of contaminated foods.

Connecticut Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro has introduced her own bill that would give the FDA greater power to inspect food manufacturers and require importers to verify the safety of their food imports. Her bill would also call for greater resources for the food agency.

The CDC data will give some momentum to the lawmakers’ efforts, said Michael R. Taylor, a health-policy professor at George Washington University who has worked on food issues at the FDA and the Agriculture Department.

"This is all the more motivation and explanation of why we need to make this paradigm shift from a system that’s largely reactive today, to one that’s more active," Taylor said in a telephone interview.