It seems as though a new food-related health scare pops up every week. Potential Salmonella contamination has prompted the recall of peanut butter, lettuce, cantaloupe and dog food. Spinach and popcorn have been recalled because of listeria concerns. E. coli contamination has led to the recall of beef. Is anything safe to eat these days? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some 5,000 people in the United States die each year from foodborne disease, and food contamination causes an estimated 76 million illnesses.
Ranking the deadliest foodborne illnesses is a tough task. The best starting point is CDC and National Health Institute information, but some of this information is obsolete and contradictory, as more recent data has become available. Some diseases, such as staphylococcal food poisoning, once killed hundreds of people a year, but kill far fewer now; on the other hand, several of the most deadly pathogens today, such as E. coli 0157:H7, campylobacter and listeria, were not even known to cause food-related illnesses 20 years ago. Given all this, here are some statistics on the deadliest foodborne illnesses in the United States. (Editor’s note: This article is not intended as a diagnostic tool. If you suspect you have one of these illnesses, contact a health-care provider immediately.)
Campylobacteriosis is a common cause of intestinal and traveler’s diarrhea (think Montezuma’s Revenge). The CDC estimates this infection causes around 75 annual deaths. The best way to avoid the Campylobacter bacterium is to fully cook all chicken, and thoroughly wash the cutting board and utensils after cutting chicken; an FDA inspection in 2005 found Campylobacter bacterium on almost half of raw chicken breasts it tested in one program.
This very contagious virus can be spread by human contact or through food and water preparation. The CDC says Norovirus is associated with 800 deaths a year in the United States, although only about 150 of them are food-related. Proper hygiene is critical in preventing this illness. Always wash your hands before eating or preparing food, and after using the restroom. And thoroughly wash fruits and vegetables and cook seafood thoroughly.
This infection caused by the Listeria monocytogenes bacterium kills approximately 250 people each year in the U.S. Young children, pregnant women, older adults and those with compromised immune systems are most at risk. The bacteria are exceptionally hardy — once in a food-processing plant, it can live there for years. It can also thrive in your refrigerator. Listeria is a versatile bacteria, affecting a wide variety of foods, including processed meats and soft cheeses, raw meat and vegetables, smoked seafood and raw milk.
This disease is commonly associated with cat litter boxes, but it can also be transmitted through food. Here’s a scary statistic: Some 60 million people in the U.S. carry the Toxoplasma parasite that causes this illness, but most people’s immune systems prevent any symptoms from showing. Still, it causes around 330 deaths annually in the U.S. To prevent foodborne Toxoplasmosis, cook meat and poultry thoroughly, using a meat thermometer (145 degrees for whole cuts of meat; 160 degrees for ground meat. Cook poultry to 165 degrees). And wash all food prep surfaces and utensils, and your hands, after cutting meat.
Salmonella poisoning causes almost 400 deaths each year in the U.S., according to the FDA, and some 42,000 cases are reported each year. Although the most common symptoms of salmonellosis are diarrhea, fever and cramps, there are some alarming long-term effects. A small percentage of victims develop joint pain and other symptoms known as reactive arthritis, which can lead to chronic, untreatable arthritis. As with almost every other illness on this list, some common-sense measures can lower your risk of infection. Cook all meats, poultry and eggs thoroughly. Wash your hands and thoroughly clean all counters and cutting boards after handling food. Salmonella bacteria are also carried by some reptiles, so wash your hands after handling snakes, turtles, lizards, etc.
One More: E. coli O157:H7
Many people had never heard of Escherichia coli, or E. coli, until an outbreak of sickness associated with undercooked fast-food hamburgers killed four children and left hundreds of others sick in 1993. E. coli is actually a beneficial bacterium that lives in the small intestine and aids in digestion. It’s the strain of bacterium known as E. coli O157:H7 that can be deadly, killing about 60 people in the U.S. each year from 1982 through 2002, according to the CDC. That figure has been in decline for several years, however, thanks to tougher regulations and more public awareness; there were an estimated 20 annual deaths from 2000 to 2008. The bacteria can be especially deadly to children and the elderly, causing hemolytic uremic syndrome and kidney failure. The best prevention is to fully cook hamburgers to at least 160 degrees inside. Wash all food preparation surfaces and your hands after touching raw hamburger. And fully wash all produce as well — those little misting devices in the grocery produce section are there to keep the produce fresh, not wash away bacteria.
And Another: Food Allergies
Despite widespread claims that up to 200 children a year die from food allergies, several national media outlets have debunked that figure. HuffingtonPost.com researched the issue and found 11 people died from food allergies in 2005, the latest year for which it could find data. Still, that’s little consolation for parents who have ever watched their child swell up like a balloon after eating some peanuts or fish. About 10,000 people under age 18 are treated in a hospital each year in U.S. hospitals for food allergies.