It may surprise you to learn that the Center for Disease Control has estimated that around 48 million Americans become ill from food-borne illnesses each year. You read it right…that’s 48 with 9 zeroes after it. And even worse, they also estimate that around 3000 people die from it annually (Center for Disease Control 2011 Report on Food-Borne Illness, http://www.cdc.gov/foodborneburden/). Food-Borne illnesses, commonly referred to as ‘food poisoning’ are a major public health concern.

Strangely enough, food poisoning is much more prevalent in developed countries like the United States, and Europe. This is because less-developed countries seem to depend less on commercially processed foods, which are one of the major origins of outbreaks. The United States has by far the most cases annually, with Australia running a close 2nd Place., with 5.4 million cases per year. By comparison, France, the birthplace of Culinary Art, only has about 75,000 cases per year, probably because they prefer their food fresh, and in smaller portions than the rest of us. They depend much less on processed foods.

There are more than 250 things that can cause food poisoning, but the most common cause is bacterial contamination of the food itself, the preparation equipment, or the immediate environment the food is prepared in.

There are 6 species of bacteria that account for the majority of food borne illnesses in the U.S

  1. Campylobacter – this can cause diarrhea, sometimes bloody, vomiting, fever, abdominal pain and cramping. It is caused by ingestion of contaminated food, water, unpasteurized milk, or by direct contact with infected infants, pets, or wild animals. In most cases, the patient will recover on their own in 2-5 days, even without treatment. Antibiotics can speed recovery. The disease can be serious in infants, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems. These people should seek medical attention as soon as possible..
  2. Salmonella -this can cause diarrhea, sometimes bloody, vomiting, acute nausea, fever and a loss of appetite. Salmonella can be especially problematic because it has the ability to escape the intestines, get into the circulatory system and spread to other organs. This can cause a secondary condition called Reiter’s Syndrome. Symptoms of Reiter’s are acute joint pain, eye irritation, and painful urination. The joint pain can develop into chronic arthritis. Most people will recover fully from salmonella, even without treatment, although it can take several months. It is seldom fatal, but it can be dangerous for infants, the elderly and persons with compromised immune systems, such as people with AIDS, diabetes, lupus, etc….Antibiotics, such as Cipro can shorten recovery time. Salmonella can be passed on from domestic, and wild animals, poultry, and livestock, but the most common vector is through ingestion of under-cooked poultry, eggs, and drinking unpasteurized milk. It can also be contracted by eating raw vegetables prepared on the same surface, or with the same utensils as raw meat, without washing in-between.
  3. Shigella – can cause severe bloody diarrhea, fever, nausea, and vomiting. This form of food poisoning is more prevalent in the tropics, and underdeveloped countries, where over-crowding and poor hygiene are prevalent. It is cased by contact with the feces of an infected person or animal. In the U.S. it is most often transmitted by cleaning out litter boxes, or changing diapers, and not washing the hands thoroughly afterwards. Most people will recover from mild cases on their own in a few days, but acute cases require medical intervention.
  4. E. Coli O157:H7 – the major cause of food poisoning in the U.S., accounting for upwards of 70% of food-borne illness cases. It is caused by contact with the feces of an infected animal or person, contact with a person who has had contact with contaminated feces, or another infected person, or animal, or even swimming in contaminated water. Symptoms can include diarrhea, sometimes bloody, abdominal cramps and low-grade fever, or no symptoms at all. Children can continue to shed the bacteria in their feces for weeks after the infection has run its course. The main vector in the U.S. is eating under-cooked ground beef, which is notorious for being contaminated. Cooking to 160°F positively kills the bacteria. Most people will recover on their own in a week or so, but it can be serious for young children (under 5 years of age), the elderly and persons with compromised immune systems, diabetes or other serious medical conditions. In 2%-7% of cases, a complication develops, called hemolytic uremic syndrome. This destroys red blood cells, and causes kidney failure. It is a medical emergency and requires immediate treatment in an ICU if the patient is to have any chance of surviving. Anyone who suspects they may have been exposed to E. Coli should seek medical attention as soon as possible.
  5. Listeria – causes fever, muscle aches, vomiting and nausea. It can also spread to the nervous system and cause headaches, disorientation, stiff neck, loss of balance, and convulsions. About 500 people die from listeria in the U.S. every year. This bacterium lives in soil, and can be transported to new areas through infected manure. It gets into vegetables and grasses, and into animals that eat the contaminated vegetables, and in the milk of the animals that eat the contaminated vegetables and grasses. Infection in humans is usually caused by eating raw vegetables that have not been properly washed, undercooked meat and veggies, drinking unpasteurized milk, or eating products made from unpasteurized milk, and contaminated cold cuts that have not been properly washed before eating, and in soft cheeses that have been contaminated after processing. It can be serious for infants, people with compromised immune systems, people with serious medical issues like diabetes, cancer or kidney disease, people taking steroids, and especially pregnant women. A pregnant woman may only experience mild flu-like symptoms, but a listeria infection can cause premature birth, infect the baby, or even cause a stillbirth. A pregnant woman should see a physician immediately anytime a listeria infection is suspected.
  6. Botulism – Botulin Toxin is one of the most toxic poisons in nature. It is produced as a waste-product by the bacteria C. Botulin. It can cause slurred speech, droopy eyelids, double-vision, difficulty swallowing, and muscle weakness. In infants, it can cause weak crying, constipation, and lethargy. Untreated it can lead to paralysis of arms, legs, and respiratory muscles, causing respiratory failure, and death. Botulism is a medical emergency and requires immediate doses of antitoxin, and patients may have to have their stomach pumped to removed the source of the infection. Botulin is caused by consuming improperly canned foods. People who practice home canning are especially at risk unless proper canning procedures are followed. Honey should never be given to infants under 12 months of age, because it can contain botulin spores, and a babys immune system has not developed enough to be able to kill the bacteria before botulism sets in.

Most food-borne illnesses can be easily prevented by following good hygienic practices such as frequent hand washing after handling…pretty much anything, especially reptiles, pets, trips to the restroom, and after handling raw meat. Knives, cutting boards and any other surfaces that contact raw meat should be washed in a 5% chlorine bleach solution before being used on anything else to prevent cross-contamination. And, of course, anyone who suspects they may be suffering from any form of food poisoning should not be allowed to prepare food, or even be in the area where food is prepared.

By following recommended procedures when handling and preparing food, you can greatly reduce your chances of every having to learn the answer to the question, ” What is food poisoning?” With good sanitary habits and a little luck, you may never have to find out.

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