Food Safety

Foodborne Illness Affects 1 in 6 Americans Each Year! Here’s What You Need to Know.

While the food supply in the United States is one of the “safest in the word,” foodborne illness is still a significant concern in this first world country. People rely more and more on commercially prepared, restaurant acquired, or packaged foods than any other time in our history.

The US government estimates that there are about 48 million cases of foodborne illness in the country annually. This means around 1 in 6 Americans falls sick from eating a contaminated food every year. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this accounts for around 128,000 hospitalization and an estimated 3,000 deaths each year. All attributed to foodborne illness, or food poisoning.

Here’s what you need to know.

Are Certain People More Susceptible to Foodborne Illness Than Others?

While no one is immune to foodborne illness, normally healthy individuals tend to experience only mild symptoms of foodborne illness.

Certain groups of people, however, are at higher risk for not only falling sick from foodborne illness, but are also more likely to experience more severe symptoms. This more vulnerable segment of the population is considered as a “high-risk” group.

Who is included in the “high-risk” group category?

  • Pregnant people and their unborn babies
  • Young children
  • Older adults
  • Those with certain health conditions or weakened immune systems

Pregnant People and Their Unborn Babies

Hormone changes and changes to the body can affect the immune system during pregnancy. This can sometimes affect the immune system as well, making pregnant people more susceptible to foodborne infection.

Additionally, during invasive foodborne infection, harmful bacteria can cross the placenta and infect the immune system of an unborn baby. Their immune systems are not fully developed, leaving them unable to fight the infection.

Foodborne illness during pregnancy can lead to severe problems, such as miscarriage, premature delivery, stillbirth, and potential sickness or death of newborn babies.

Young Children

Children under 5 years old are at higher risk of developing foodborne illness and more severe symptoms. Their immune systems are still developing, leaving them more vulnerable. In some cases, their bodies cannot fight off foodborne infection as well as adults, or even older children.

Older Adults

Older adults, generally those over 65 years old or those who are frail are also at higher risk of developing foodborne illness and experiencing more severe symptoms. As the body ages, the body can become a bit more sluggish. It is slower at recognizing harmful bacteria and other pathogens and takes a bit more time to rid the body of the offending microorganisms.

Those With Certain Conditions or Weakened Immune Systems

Certain conditions, especially those that affect the immune system, can contribute to increased risk of foodborne illness.

Common conditions that increase risk of foodborne illness include:

  • Cancer
  • Organ transplant patients
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • HIV/AIDS
  • Diabetes

Cancer and organ transplant patients often take medications as part of their treatment protocol that affects the immune system. When the immune system is depressed, the individual is more likely to become sick when exposed to a pathogen and more likely to experience more severe symptoms.

Autoimmune diseases and HIV/AIDS are conditions where the body alters its own immune system. This leaves it more susceptible to infection when exposed to a pathogen. These groups are also more likely to experience more severe symptoms.

Diabetes can also affect a person’s likelihood of becoming sick after exposure to a foodborne pathogen. Food often passes more slowly through the digestive system of someone with diabetes. This allows potentially harmful bacteria more time to multiply and grow into infectious numbers as they make their way through the digestive system. This can test even a strong immune system.

Foods to Avoid If You Are More Susceptible to Foodborne Illness

Certain foods carry a greater risk for foodborne illness. Some of the items on the list are based on statistical evidence. Others are due to the nature of the food product. Sometimes it comes down to risk factors based on the product and how it is handled.

According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), “if you are at greater risk of foodborne illness, you are advised not to eat:”

  • Raw fish or partially cooked seafood
  • Raw shellfish (including oysters, clams, mussels, and scallops) and their juices
  • Refrigerated smoked seafood
  • Raw or undercooked meat or poultry
  • Unpasteurized, refrigerated pâtés or meat spreads
  • Hot dogs, cold cuts, fermented and dry sausage, and other dairy style meats
  • Raw or undercooked eggs or foods containing raw or undercooked eggs (e.g., homemade salad dressings, homemade cookie dough and cake batters, and homemade eggnog.)
  • Unpasteurized (raw) milk and products made with raw milk (e.g., yogurt and cheese)
  • Soft cheeses made from unpasteurized milk (e.g., feta, brie, camembert, and blue-veined) as well as Mexican style cheeses made from unpasteurized milk (e.g., queso fresco, panela, asadero, and queso blanco)
  • Unpasteurized fruit or vegetable juices
  • Unwashed fresh vegetables, including lettuce/salads
  • Salads prepared on site in a deli-type establishment (e.g., ham salad, chicken salad, or seafood salad)
  • Raw sprouts

This list is not exhaustive, as many other foods may be carriers of foodborne pathogens. Consult your healthcare provider if you fall into the high-risk category to discuss your specific dietary questions.

Top Foodborne Illness Pathogens, According to the CDC

The CDC has created a list of the top 5 foodborne illness pathogens based on statistical results. These bad bugs have been ranked based on number of illnesses, hospitalization, and deaths in the United States each year.

Top 5 Pathogens Causing Illnesses

  1. Norovirus
  2. Salmonella (non-typhoidal)
  3. Clostridium perfringens
  4. Campylobacter
  5. Staphylococcus aureus

Top 5 Pathogens Causing Hospitalizations

  1. Salmonella (non-typhoidal)
  2. Norovirus
  3. Campylobacter
  4. Toxoplasma gondii
  5. coli O157

Top 5 Pathogens Causing Deaths

  1. Salmonella (non-typhoidal)
  2. Toxoplasma gondii
  3. Listeria monocytogenes
  4. Norovirus
  5. Campylobacter

Common Symptoms of Foodborne Illness

Most foodborne illness creates digestive related illness, usually resulting in nausea, vomiting diarrhea, and abdominal pain. Fever, headache, and body aches are also fairly common.

Depending on the bug, symptoms often appear in as little as 12 to 72 hours after consuming contaminated food. However, in some cases it can occur as soon as 30 minutes or as late as 4 weeks after exposure.

Certain pathogens can lead to serious complications. For example, hemolytic uremic syndrome or HUS is a type of kidney failure associated with E. coli. Guillain-Barre syndrome is an autoimmune response potentially brought on my Campylobacter infection and causes body paralysis. Miscarriage, pre-mature delivery, and stillbirths can be caused by Listeria monocytogenes infection. And so much more.

Foodborne Illness is Serious

Foodborne illness is a serious matter. Monitor your symptoms and be ready to get medical care if symptoms become severe. Think about what you have eaten recently and report it to your local health department. You may feel better soon, but your report could lead to a recall or investigation that could save the lives of others not so lucky.

Want to Know More About Food Safety?

If you’d like to know more about food safety in the news, like Foodborne Illness Affects 1 in 6 Americans Each Year, check out the Make Food Safe Blog. We regularly update trending topics, foodborne infections in the news, recalls, and more! Stay tuned for quality information to help keep your family safe, while The Lange Law Firm, PLLC strives to Make Food Safe!

Heather Van Tassell

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