Worst Foodborne Illness Outbreaks in U.S. History
From canned beans to ground turkey, recent history's worst food poisoning culprits.
Worst Foodborne Illness Outbreaks in Recent U.S. History
Foodborne illness affects an estimated 48 million people each year (one out of six), resulting in 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Of the types of botulism, the foodborne kind comes from eating contaminated foods. The culprits are often home-canned foods whose preparers have failed to follow proper canning methods. Other sources come from improper handling during manufacture.
Botulism at Trini & Carmen’s Restaurant, 1977
One of the largest botulism outbreaks in U.S. history occurred in Pontiac, Michigan. Customers of Trini & Carmen’s, a Mexican restaurant, reported symptoms of food poisoning in March 1977. The cause was tracked to hot sauce made from improperly canned jalapeño peppers. The restaurant had recently switched from fresh to canned jalapeños. Within days, the restaurant was closed and jars of contaminated peppers were seized. There were no deaths, though 58 local residents and one Ohio visitor became ill.
Joan of Arc Bean Salad Scare, 1977
Another of the most widespread botulism outbreaks in U.S. history started in a New Mexico country club. In 1978, members and guests reported symptoms of botulism poisoning, later traced to the canned three-bean salad served at the club. Of the 33 who became ill, two deaths resulted. Lawsuits were later filed by victims against Joan of Arc Company, the Delaware food manufacturer that made the contaminated three-bean salad, and against the distributor, Johnson Food Company.
Listeria Caused by Jalisco Cheese, 1985
Over the course of six months in 1985, a listeriosis outbreak affected residents of Los Angeles and Orange counties, killing as many as 40 people. After an in-depth investigation, it was discovered that the victims (who included 10 infants) had all eaten a Mexican-style soft cheese produced by Jalisco Cheese. The company instituted a voluntary recall of the tainted cheese products, but a year later, they were slapped with 60 misdemeanor criminal violations of state agriculture, health, and safety laws.
Jewel Food Store Milk Causes Salmonella, 1985
When several people in Illinois reported symptoms of food poisoning, it led to an investigation by state health officials. The outbreak of Salmonella that followed included cases in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin. The first Salmonella outbreak was traced to cartons of two percent milk sold under Jewel Food Store’s Bluebrook brand, followed by tainted milk from the Hillfarm label. Both brands were processed at Jewel’s Melrose Park plant. Though Salmonella is rarely fatal, in this case, there were two reported deaths.
E. coli at Jack in the Box, 1993
With over 40 years of success in the fast-food world, the Jack in the Box franchise almost crumbled in 1993. After eating contaminated meat from Jack in the Box restaurants in Seattle, California, Idaho, Texas and Nevada, four children died and hundreds of other customers fell ill. The outbreak caused a national panic, and the Jack in the Box brand was suddenly tainted.
Jack in the Box rebounded by creating the now infamous “Jack” character and accompanying ad campaign in 1994. The campaign kept the company alive and 15 years later, Jack and the franchise are still going strong.
Frozen Strawberry Scare, 1997
In Calhoun County, Michigan, cases of Hepatitis A led to the recall of more than a million pounds of frozen strawberries. The strawberries had been purchased by the U.S.D.A. for a federal school lunch program, and had been sent to schools in six states. The contaminated strawberries originated from Mexico, then moved onto California where they were processed and shipped. In response, thousands of school children were immunized against hepatitis A.
E. coli at Sizzler, 2000
In July of 2000, over 60 cases of E. coli were linked to Sizzler restaurants in Wisconsin. The outbreak also claimed the life of a 3-year-old girl who died from complications of hemolytic uremic syndrome, a disease caused by the E. coli infection. An investigation found that the main cause of the outbreak was cross-contamination between the meat processing area and the ready-to-eat food preparation area.
Pilgrim’s Pride Meat Causes Listeria, 2002
What did Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Michigan have in common in 2002? The widespread outbreak of Listeria monocytogenes. Listeriosis, an infection typically caused from eating contaminated food with Listeria monocytogenes, was linked, in this case, to sliced turkey deli meat from Pilgrim’s Pride Foods of PA. The outbreak, which included seven deaths, resulted in the recall of 27.4 million pounds of poultry products.
Hepatitis A Outbreak at Chi-Chi’s, 2003
In November 2003, a Chi-Chi’s restaurant in Monaca, Pennsylvania caused the death of four people and sickened hundreds of others, including high school students who passed it on to others. The cause was hepatitis A-infected green onions that were imported from Mexico. According to the CDC, this was the largest outbreak in U.S. history of hepatitis A, a virus caused through contact with feces. The restaurant chain no longer exists.
Dole Baby Spinach Causes E. coli, 2006
An E. coli outbreak swept over the U.S. twice in 2006. The first outbreak began in September when the FDA linked the hospitalizations to uncooked spinach in 26 states. Three people died, 31 suffered kidney failure, and a total of 199 people had diarrhea and dehydration. During the outbreak, Dole recalled all bagged spinach from shelves across the country. Investigators believe it came from a cattle ranch that leased land to a spinach farmer.
E.coli Outbreak at Taco Bell, 2006
In December 2006, two fast food taco restaurants had E. coli outbreaks linked to contaminated lettuce. The first involved 71 Taco Bell customers across five states on the East Coast. Eight of those people suffered kidney failure. The second outbreak involved the Taco John’s chain in Iowa and Minnesota, involving a total of 87 people. Following the outbreak, California (where the Taco Bell lettuce came from) enacted stricter standards for handling leafy greens.
Hot Peppers & Peanut Butter Cause Salmonella, 2009
From April to July 2008, more than 1,329 people across 43 states were infected with Salmonella poisoning, the largest Salmonella outbreak since 1985. They were linked to fresh tomatoes from Mexico and Florida, as well as fresh jalapeños and Serrano peppers from those areas. In early 2009, contaminated peanut butter prompted a recall of 3,918-related peanut butter products after nine people died, and 22,500 more were sickened. The cases were linked to Peanut Corporations of America, which is now bankrupt.
Cargill Ground Turkey Causes Salmonella, 2011
In August 2011, Cargill, Inc.—the largest privately held corporation in the U.S.—recalled 36 million pounds of ground turkey after fears that it was contaminated with a strain of Salmonella resistant to antibiotics. It has been linked to at least one death and 79 illnesses across 26 states. That investigation is ongoing.
Protect Yourself from Food Poisoning
Food recalls and government inspection are just two of the major preventive measures in place to keep our food safe. However, being vigilant in your own home about the safety of your food is important to ensure everyone in your home stays healthy. Learn more in Healthline’s Food Safety Learning Center.
Food isn’t always the source of illness. Learn about the 10 Worst Outbreaks in U.S. History.