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Worst Foodborne Illness Outbreaks in Recent U.S. History

Food poisoning can be serious

Foodborne illness, or food poisoning, affects about one in six Americans every year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that of these cases, there are 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths annually.

You can get food poisoning when your food carries dangerous germs or toxins. Salmonella is the most common known cause of hospitalization due to food poisoning in the United States with over 19,000 cases per year.

This pathogen, along with others, can get into your food through:

  • improper food handling
  • unsafe practices on farms
  • contamination during manufacturing or distributing
  • contamination in stores

Read about the biggest foodborne outbreaks in recent U.S. history, and learn how to recognize food poisoning and protect yourself from it.

Salmonella outbreaks over time

salmonella outbreak

Most people recover from Salmonella infection within four to seven days. Symptoms such as diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps usually appear 12 to 72 hours after infection. Treatment includes antidiarrheal medications, antibiotics, and fluids and electrolytes.

2009: PCA peanut butter

The Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) experienced a Salmonella outbreak. According to CDC, 714 people got sick and nine died from PCA’s peanut butter. The company prompted a recall of over 3,600 peanut butter products. PCA is now bankrupt.

2011: Cargill ground turkey

Cargill recalled 36 million pounds of ground turkey when it suspected the meat may have been contaminated with an antibiotic-resistant strain of Salmonella. This outbreak caused at least one death and about 136 illnesses across 34 states.

2013: Foster Farms chicken

California chicken producer Foster Farms was suspected of infecting a total of 634 persons with Salmonella. Incidents spread across 29 states and Puerto Rico, but no deaths were reported. The company issued a voluntary recall on all Foster Farms brand chicken products.

2015: Mexican cucumbers

Salmonella from cucumbers imported from Mexico infected 907 people in 40 states. This outbreak resulted in the hospitalization of more than 200 persons and six deaths.

The cucumbers were distributed by Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce. The company issued two separate recalls.

Escherichia coli outbreaks in food

ecoli outbreak

E. coli bacteria normally lives in the intestines of animals and humans. However, infections from certain strains of this bacteria can sicken humans. Symptoms usually develop three to four days after exposure. They include:

  • diarrhea
  • bloody stools
  • abdominal pain
  • vomiting
  • fever (occasional)

The strain of E.coli most often associated with outbreaks produces a toxin. The toxin is what causes the illness, so antibiotics are ineffective. According to the CDC, antibiotics and anti-diarrhea medicines may increase risk of complications. Treatment involves rest, fluids, and, in severe cases, hospitalization.

1993: Jack in the Box hamburgers

Four people in Washington and California died from eating contaminated meat from Jack in the Box. Hundreds of other customers also fell ill. This caused a national panic, nearly resulting in the end for the fast-food chain. The outbreak led to stronger government regulations of food handling.

2006: Dole baby spinach

The outbreak began in September, when the Food and Drug Administration linked E. coli infections to uncooked spinach in 26 states. Three people died, 31 suffered kidney failure, and 205 people reported cases of diarrhea and dehydration. During the outbreak, Dole recalled all its bagged spinach from shelves across the country. Investigators believe the contamination may have originated from a cattle ranch that leased land to a spinach farmer.

2006: Taco Bell fast food

In December, an E. coli outbreak affected 71 customers of Taco Bell across five states. Eight people developed kidney failure, and 53 people were hospitalized. The Taco Bell outbreak was linked to contaminated lettuce from California. Following the outbreak, these states enacted stricter standards for handling lettuce.

2015: Chipotle Mexican Grill fast food

Between October and November, Chipotle Mexican Grill had an E. coli outbreak. About 55 people in 11 states became ill after eating at the restaurant during the initial outbreak. There were 22 reported hospitalizations and no deaths. In a second outbreak for this fast-food chain, five people became ill from a different strain of E. coli. There’s no confirmed cause for either outbreak.

Botulism outbreaks

botulism outbreak

Symptoms of botulism usually begin 18 to 36 hours after exposure and include:

  • difficulty swallowing or speaking
  • blurry vision
  • abdominal pain
  • muscle weakness
  • paralysis

Treatment for this condition requires hospitalization and includes antitoxins and supportive care.

1977: Trini & Carmen’s hot sauce

One of the largest botulism outbreaks in U.S. history occurred in Pontiac, Michigan. Customers of Mexican restaurant Trini & Carmen’s reported symptoms of food poisoning in March. The source was tracked to hot sauce made from improperly home-canned jalapeño peppers. Within days, the restaurant was closed and jars of contaminated peppers were seized. No were reported deaths, but 58 people became ill.

2015: Home-canned potatoes

According to the CDC, the largest botulism outbreak in the last 40 years occurred in Fairfield County, Ohio, in 2015. The outbreak caused 29 people to become ill and one death due to respiratory failure. The source was traced back to improperly home-canned potatoes used to make potato salad for a church potluck picnic.

Listeria infections

listeria outbreak

Listeria infections are particularly dangerous for pregnant women. It’s possible for unborn babies to catch the infection. Pregnant women are also 10 times more likely to get a Listeria infection than nonpregnant women or men. Newborns, older adults, and anyone with a weakened immune system are also at high risk.

This type of infection usually develops within a several days after eating contaminated food. In pregnant women, it can take much longer. Others often have symptoms of:

  • headaches
  • confusion
  • loss of balance
  • seizures
  • fever
  • fatigue
  • muscle aches

Symptoms during pregnancy include fever, muscle aches, and fatigue. Complications include miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth, and infection in a newborn.

Treatment involves antibiotics.

1985: Jalisco Products cheese

Over eight months, a Listeria outbreak affected 142 residents of Los Angeles County. This lead to the deaths of 10 newborns and 18 adults. It was also responsible for 20 miscarriages. An in-depth investigation linked the deaths to Jalisco Products’ Mexican soft cheeses. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, the suspected cause of the outbreak was unpasteurized milk. The company instituted a voluntary recall of its products.

1998-1999: Hot dogs

An outbreak of Listeria from tainted hot dogs affected at least 100 people across 24 states, causing 14 adult deaths and four miscarriages. The contamination affected over nine brands, including Sara Lee Deli Meat. This outbreak spread from Bil Mar Foods’ manufacturing plant in Zeeland, Michigan.

2002: Pilgrim’s Pride turkey meat

Sliced turkey deli meat from Pilgrim’s Pride caused a widespread outbreak of Listeria in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Michigan. This lead to seven adult deaths and three stillbirths. The company recalled 27.4 million pounds of poultry products.

2011: Cantaloupes

In 2011, it’s believed that 33 people passed away from contaminated cantaloupe. A total of 147 people got sick. Investigations traced the source of the outbreak to Jensen Farms’ packing facility near Holly, Colorado.

Hepatitis A infections from food contamination

hepatitis a outbreak

Hepatitis A is a liver disease. Its symptoms may include:

  • fever
  • jaundice
  • dark urine
  • abdominal pain
  • joint paint
  • vomiting
  • loss of appetite

There’s no specific treatment for hepatitis A, but your doctor may recommend rest, high fluid intake, and nutrition. In order to decrease outbreaks, the CDC recommends the hepatitis A vaccine for all children 12 months and older and for certain adults.

1997: Frozen strawberries

In Calhoun County, Michigan, an outbreak of hepatitis A affected 153 people. The outbreak was linked to frozen strawberries. The contaminated berries were for a federal school lunch program and distributed to schools across six states.

2003: Chi-Chi’s salsa and chili con queso

The largest outbreak of hepatitis A happened at a Chi-Chi’s restaurant in Monaca, Pennsylvania. It caused the death of three people and about 555 people caught the virus. This prompted the health department to provide hepatitis A vaccinations and post-exposure antibodies. The outbreak was traced to contaminated green onions imported from Mexico, used in the restaurant’s salsa and chili con queso. The restaurant chain is no longer operating.

2016: Tropical Smoothie Cafe drinks

An outbreak of hepatitis A at Tropical Smoothie Cafe restaurants affected nine states. The CDC reported that 143 people became ill after drinking smoothies made with frozen strawberries imported from Egypt. Of these, 56 were hospitalized. No deaths were reported from the outbreak.

Protect yourself from food poisoning

Food recalls, government inspections, and food handling regulations are effective preventive measures used to keep our food safe. To prevent or lower your risk of foodborne illnesses, pay attention to food recalls and check your kitchen for contaminated products.

See a doctor if you have:

  • bloody vomit or stools
  • diarrhea lasting longer than three days
  • extreme abdominal pain
  • signs of dehydration (decreased urination, dizziness, palpitations)
  • blurry vision
  • fever greater than 101.5°F (38.6°C)

Food poisoning can be life-threatening to people with weakened immune systems, including children, pregnant individuals, and older adults.

Safe food handling practices are also important.

Tips

  1. Always wash your hands with soap and water, before and after you prepare food.
  2. Use clean utensils and dishes, and have two separate cutting boards for raw meats and produce.
  3. Store uncooked meat, poultry, and seafood separately from ready-to-eat products.
  4. Refrigerate and cook foods to safe temperatures.
  5. Wash all fruits and vegetables under running water.

If you suspect that food may be spoiled or contaminated, toss it in the garbage. It’s better to be safe than sorry! You can also stay updated on current foodborne outbreaks by visiting the CDC website.

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