Last updated: Mar 02, 2016
TK
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Foodborne illness is nothing to sneeze at in America: Each year there are an estimated 87 million cases, leading to 371,000 hospitalizations and 5,700 deaths. Produce-related food poisonings are on the rise, and foodborne disease is no longer on the decline, government officials said in a recent report.


Salmonella is the most common cause of food poisoning, at about 16 cases per 100,000 people, with campylobacter and shigella second and third, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In spite of the scary numbers, experts are making more sense of how contamination spreads and how it can be controlled or prevented—good news for the savvy consumer who wants to be as proactive as possible, says Michael Doyle, PhD, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia. Here, he looks at what we need to know about some of our nations biggest food crises.

Peanut butter, peppers, pistachios, tomatoes
Earlier this year, pistachios were recalled after salmonella was found at a California plant. This followed a widespread recall of 3,400 peanut products linked to plants that reportedly had rodent problems. Salmonella can be found in the intestinal tracts of animals and is shed in their feces.

Roughly 700 cases of salmonella poisoning from peanut products were reported, leading experts to rethink nut safety, Doyle says. “We have to properly roast nuts to ensure that salmonella gets killed, because there is no suitable treatment for killing it once the nuts get made into something like peanut butter.”

Salmonella was also the culprit in the 2008 contamination of jalapeños and serranos that sickened more than 1,440 people, and when 561 people got ill after eating tainted Roma tomatoes in 2004. Because tomatoes typically get cleaned in communal tanks, if just one tomato has dirt on it with salmonella, it can contaminate all the tomatoes, Doyle says. “Even if the tank is chlorinated, the bacterial load could overwhelm the chlorine,” he says. “The industry really should test the water in these tanks.”

Bagged spinach, apple juice, burgers
Investigators suspected that the E. coli contamination of bagged spinach, which caused a national outbreak of food poisoning in 2006, originated at a California ranch. More than 200 people got sick, and three died. The crisis was an eye-opener because there was no livestock, the typical carriers of E. coli, close by, Doyle says. The thinking now is that wild pigs in the area or surface waterways exposed to feces from cattle and wildlife were the culprits.

In 1996, E. coli contamination in apple-juice products was also blamed on wildlife; this time, deer in the orchard. Under Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rules, major marketers of juice are now required to pasteurize it, which kills E. coli, Doyle says. But be aware that some stores press their own unpasteurized juice.

The FDA raised the recommended temperature to which hamburgers should be cooked from 140 degrees F to 155 degrees and then to 160 degrees after undercooked E. coli-contaminated hamburgers sickened hundreds and killed four in 1993. “This is also why restaurants either warn you about or wont serve you undercooked poultry, seafood, or ground meat,” Doyle says.

Scallions In 2003, raw or undercooked scallions served in a Pennsylvania restaurant contributed to hepatitis A outbreaks that sickened more than 600 people. Scallions harvested in Mexico may have been contaminated by workers children playing in the fields or defecating nearby. Hep A is a viral infection that can cause jaundice, fatigue, abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea, fever, and (rarely) death.

Hot dogs, cold cuts
In 1998 a Listeria outbreak blamed for the deaths of 15 people prompted the recall of roughly 15 million pounds of meat. The bacteria (found in contaminated water, soil, or manure, and often spread by animals) can cause fever, muscle aches, nausea, diarrhea, miscarriage, meningitis, and proves fatal in roughly 20% of cases. Listeria is killed by pasteurization and cooking, and processors have since developed other ways to kill listeria surface contamination, Doyle says.