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Food Poisoning is an Ongoing Health Issue

Posted in Food Safety,Listeria,Our Blog on December 13, 2018

Food poisoning is a very serious and entirely relevant health problem today, and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. Foodborne illnesses directly result in well over 9.4 million illnesses every year in the United States alone, and most of them come from pathogens that have a tendency to cause a self-limited gastroenteritis. That being said, thousands of individuals are hospitalized every year because of complications that occur from their food poisoning illness and mortality is not an uncommon consequence. This issue is serious and deserves more attention!

When two or more cases of a similar or identical illness occurs after the ingestion of a common food or liquid, it can be classified as a foodborne disease outbreak. Once an outbreak has been established, usually through local and state health departments reports reaching the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an investigation is initiated in order to determine the source of the outbreak. While there are many different kinds of foodborne illnesses, pathogens, and viruses, a recent CDC report carefully summarizes those that are most common, namely: Salmonella, Listeria, Norovirus, E. coli, Campylobacter, and some others.

Per the statistics, multiple states were involved in only 3% of outbreaks that occurred between the years of 2009 and 2015. However, multistate outbreaks were directly responsible for 34% of the hospitalizations and 54% of the deaths that occurred during these years. This evidence suggests that an outbreak is far more likely to have a severe impact when multiple states are involved.

Additional research has clearly revealed that sit-down restaurants are by far the most likely place to find food preparation issues and health code violations that result in a foodborne illness, compromising 48% of all outbreaks and 33% of all outbreak-related illnesses. Catering companies or banquet facilities, and private homes come in a comparable second and third, with percentages at 14% and 12% respectively.

Now, while some food categories are commonly thought to be more likely at causing a food poisoning outbreak than others, it’s important to understand that any food category whatsoever is capable of contamination. This means that all foods are able to cause a foodborne disease outbreak. That being said, the fingle food category that is most commonly implicated in outbreaks is fish, responsible for 17% of all outbreaks. However, the number of illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths directly associated with foodborne illnesses caused by the consumption of contaminated fish is actually remarkably low. Disease mechanisms of the pathogens involved with fish related illnesses are usually different than other food categories.

According to Dr. Haston, training fellow in pediatric infectious diseases at Emory University School of Medicine and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, and colleague Dr. Pickering,

The majority of outbreaks involving fish were found to be caused by scombroid toxin (85 outbreaks) or ciguatoxin (72). These toxins are produced by fish, including tuna, mackerel and skipjack (scombroid) and barracuda, mackerel and snapper (ciguatoxin), and can cause severe neurologic and gastrointestinal tract symptoms. Because these toxins are produced in individual fish, the size of outbreaks generally is limited. However, bacterial pathogens can contaminate and replicate in many food products, explaining why these outbreaks tend to be much larger.

Dairy products–usually those that are unpasteurized–and chicken are the other most common food categories causing foodborne illnesses. According to Haston and Pickering, “The number of illnesses resulting from foodborne outbreaks was most common among chicken (12% of illnesses), pork (10%) and seeded vegetables such as tomatoes and peppers (10%). The highest numbers of illnesses occurred in outbreaks of Salmonellain eggs and seeded vegetables. Outbreak-associated hospitalizations were highest with Salmonellaidentified in seeded vegetables and chicken.”

Per Haston and Pickering’s findings, research reveals that deaths are highest among cases of Listeria monocytogenes outbreaks which tends to result from consuming contaminated fruits and dairy products. So even if people have told you to fear raw chicken and shellfish, there are actually many other forms of foodborne illnesses that can come from surprising places. Per these authors,

A single pathogen, either confirmed or suspected, was identified in 71% of outbreaks. Of those with identified etiologies, norovirus was responsible for the largest percent of outbreaks and illnesses (46% and 45%, respectively) (see figure 2). This finding is consistent with previous reports that have found norovirus to be the leading cause of foodborne disease outbreaks. However, more severe morbidity occurred in infections caused by Salmonellaand Listeria monocytogenes. Outbreaks due to Salmonellacaused the highest percentage of hospitalizations (60%), and Listeriacaused 52% of deaths.

One of the most severe Listeria monocytogenes outbreaks involved cantaloupes back in 2011, where 28 states were affected and 33 people died. These numbers directly relate to the fatality rate in Listeria monocytogenes cases which is a striking 22%.

Foodborne illness outbreaks are incredibly common, and they continue to threaten the United States population along with other nations on the globe. Despite advances we’ve made in food safety and regulation processes, food poisoning is a real risk. High numbers of salmonella outbreaks, vibrio cases, and norovirus diseases should serve to reinforce our need to strengthen food safety and enforce hygiene. Food outbreaks are commonly perpetrated by food handlers who accidently or carelessly contaminate foods.

So while we have put a lot of effort into attempting to prevent foodborne diseases, we’ve established laws and regulations to help keep food pure, and we have professionals and authorities who are quick to act when news of an outbreak meets them, we still have a lot of work to do. Continued efforts are necessary in order to reduce these outbreaks even more. Timely reporting should constantly be encouraged in order to help eliminate sources of contamination as soon as possible. Food safety and proper hygiene should be further vocalized so people everywhere understand the dangers associated with pathogens and bacteria in even the foods thought to be “safe.”

Food safety is important, but perhaps we ought to make it more so.

By: Abbey Ryan Elder, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)