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The commonest sources of food poisoning are also some of the healthiest, such as leafy green vegetables and salad ingredients, eggs and poultry. As well as causing unpleasant illness, contaminated food can kill, so know how to avoid the these hazards.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia estimates that about 48 million people in the US (that’s one in six of us) are poisoned every year by contaminated food. In 128,000 cases the illness is severe enough to require hospital treatment, and results in the death of 3,000 people. Food poisoning has sadly even led to the death of unborn fetuses

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The variety of foodstuffs affected is staggering.  It includes obvious culprits such as meat, raw fish, and cheese, but also peanut butter and pet food.  A network of regulatory and enforcement agencies, and laboratories strive to keep pace with the scale of the problem. 

The CDC estimate that the cases which come to the attention of these agencies is only the very apex of the ‘iceberg’.

 This is because many people do not seek medical attention for food poisoning and of those who do, not all will have a sample sent to a lab. or be notified to the relevant authorities - in other words they go unreported

For example for every case of Salmonella food poisoning notified to the authorities in 2012, the CDC estimate a further 29 went undiagnosed, and in the case of Vibrio (a common contaminant of oysters) for every case reported, 142 went undiagnosed!

Which bacteria are causing the problem?

The spectrum of organisms (bacteria and viruses) isolated from food linked with food poisoning varies from year to year.  But some species generally always feature.  In 2012 the most common was Salmonella, closely followed by Campylobacter, then Escherichia coli (especially strain 0157), Vibrio, Yersinia and Listeria.

Which foods are most associated with food poisoning?

The FDA produced a report of the foods most commonly reported to them in relation to outbreaks of food poisoning.  

Topping the list were green leafy vegetables and seed sprouts, which were linked with 22% (nearly a quarter!) of reported cases of food poisoning. 

The most common organism associated with them was Norovirus.  The source of this contamination is generally from food handlers, in other words, good hygiene practices are not being employed by people handling the produce.

But leafy greens can also be contaminated with E. coli while growing - from contact with wild animals, manure or unclean water.  They can also acquire the organism during food preparation – from other foods which are contaminated with E.coli.  This is often how outbreaks in restaurants have occurred – in those where food preparation practices are poor, allowing cross-contamination between foods.

  • www.cdc.gov/foodborneburden/index.html
  • www.cdc.gov/features/dsfoodnet2012/reportcard.html
  • www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/prevention.html
  • www.cdc.gov/mmwr/international/relres.html (for local health departments)

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