About 48 million people (1 in 6 Americans) get sick, 127,839 are hospitalized, and 3,037 die each year from foodborne diseases in the U.S., according to new estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Foodborne disease, commonly called food poisoning, is any illness resulting from the consumption of contaminated food.

The study also found that salmonella was the leading cause of foodborne disease in the U.S.

These are the first comprehensive estimates since 1999 and CDC's first effort estimating illnesses caused solely by foods eaten in the United States.

Estimates released in 1999 showed that food poisoning caused 76 million episodes of illness, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths each year in the United States. The estimates of food-borne illness are needed to guide new prevention efforts and assess the effectiveness of food safety measures, CDC said in a statement.

American consumers eat out more and rarely cook for themselves. They also eat more processed food than ever before, involving more people and more preparation, thus increasing the chance for disease-producing food-handling errors.

However, what is intriguing is that the new estimates lower the incidence of food poisoning. The overall public health burden of foodborne illness in the United States is lower as CDC now says food poisoning sickens 1 in 6 Americans each year, not 1 in 4 as estimated in 1999.

Is food in the United States safer than it was 11 years ago? 

When 1999 and 2010 estimates are compared (76 million vs. 48 million illnesses), the best answer to this question comes from the FoodNet system, an active laboratory-based sentinel surveillance system.

FoodNet provides annual data from designated sentinel surveillance sites on numbers of laboratory-diagnosed cases of 10 predominantly foodborne bacterial and parasitic pathogens; it reports actual case totals, not estimates.

The overall trends show an initial drop in incidence of infection with the major bacterial foodborne pathogens after implementation of the 1995 USDA regulations, followed by a leveling off of incidence in subsequent years.

We've made progress in better understanding the burden of foodborne illness and unfortunately, far too many people continue to get sick from the food they eat. These estimates provide valuable information to help CDC and its partners set priorities and further reduce illnesses from food, said CDC Director Thomas Frieden.

Of the total estimate of 48 million illnesses annually, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 9.4 million illnesses are due to 31 known foodborne pathogens.

The balance 38 million illnesses result from unspecified agents, which include known agents without enough data to make specific estimates, agents not yet recognized as causing foodborne illness, and agents not yet discovered.

Salmonella is the genus name for a large number (over 2,500) of types of bacteria, and is closely related to the Escherichia genus (bacteria from the family Enterobacteriaceae).

The bacteria are found worldwide in cold and warm-blooded animals (including humans), and in the environment. They cause illnesses like typhoid fever, paratyphoid fever, and the foodborne illness.

Named after an American veterinary pathologist Daniel Elmer Salmon, the bacteria can survive several weeks in a dry environment and several months in water; thus, they are frequently found in polluted water, contamination from the excrement of carrier animals being particularly important. Poultry, cattle, and sheep frequently being agents of contamination, salmonella can be found in food, particularly meats and eggs.

Salmonella was the leading cause of estimated hospitalizations and deaths, responsible for about 28 percent of deaths and 35 percent of hospitalizations due to known pathogens transmitted by food, according to CDC.

About 90 percent of estimated illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths were due to seven pathogens: Salmonella, norovirus, Campylobacter (meaning 'twisted bacteria'), Toxoplasma, Escherichia coli O157:H7, Listeria and Clostridium perfringens. Nearly 60 percent of estimated illnesses, but a much smaller proportion of severe illness, was caused by norovirus.

Foodborne illness is caused by bacteria, toxins, viruses, parasites, and prions. Foodborne disease can also be caused by a large variety of toxins that affect the environment. The illness can also be caused by pesticides or medicines in food and naturally toxic substances like poisonous mushrooms or reef fish.

Foodborne illnesses and deaths are preventable, and as such, are unacceptable, said FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg.

We must, and can, do better by intensifying our efforts to implement measures that are prevention-oriented and science-based. We are moving down this path as quickly as possible under current authorities but eagerly await passage of new food safety legislation that would provide us with new and long overdue tools to further modernize our food safety program, said Hamburg.

Norovirus (formerly Norwalk agent) is an RNA virus (taxonomic family Caliciviridae) that causes about 90 percent of epidemic non-bacterial outbreaks of gastroenteritis around the world, and may be responsible for 50 percent of all foodborne outbreaks of gastroenteritis in the U.S. Norovirus affects people of all ages.

People expect food to nourish them, not to harm them. So we need to intensify efforts to decrease the number of illnesses and deaths due to foodborne diseases, said Christopher Braden, director of CDC's Division of Foodborne, Waterborne, and Environmental Diseases.

We now know more than ever what pathogens are causing the most harm, and we will continue our work to help protect people from these illnesses. Much that remains unknown about how and why people get sick and we are committed to learning more in the future, said Braden.

Prevention of foodborne illness

Many of the pathogens or bacteria that cause foodborne illnesses are very hard to get rid of, but the spread can be controled by careful food preparation.

These four basic principles can be followed to prepare food and keep it safe, which have been listed out in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, Foodborne Pathogenic Microorganisms and Natural Toxins Handbook, The Bad Bug Book.

-- Wash hands and surfaces often. Wash hands before handling food. As you prepare food, wash hands often with soapy water and keep everything clean that is in contact with food.

-- Prevent cross contamination. Raw food can have bacteria on it that can contaminate other foods. Wash hands, utensils, cutting boards, and work surfaces with hot soapy water after contact with raw meat and poultry.

-- Cook foods to proper temperatures. Meat should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees F. Use a meat thermometer to check temperatures. Never cook meat in an oven below 325 degrees F. Meat should not be pink and juices should be clear. If reheating foods, they should also reach a temperature of 165 degrees F or come to a full rolling boil. If foods should be served cold, be sure they remain cold and not at room temperature.

-- Refrigerate promptly. Put all leftovers in the refrigerator promptly. Use containers that are shallow, and do not stack on other containers. This allows the cool refrigerated air to circulate and cool the food quickly. Take extra care to be sure that dense foods, like stew, and large pieces of meat are broken down into small enough pieces to cool quickly.