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Food Poisoning Strikes Millions of Americans Each Year

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Even when we read about the salmonella outbreak linked to eggs that sickened 1,300 people, or 826,000 pounds of contaminated ground beef that was recalled in 12 states, or the E. coli epidemic traced to California spinach that spread to 26 states… we don’t think this can happen to us – not in the United States.

But food-borne illnesses can, and do, strike millions of Americans each year. Here are some startling facts about the impact of contaminated food on consumers and their families.

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 48 million Americans a year – one in six – become ill from something they ate. Approximately 128,00 of these victims are hospitalized, and about 3,000 of them die. But because the symptoms of food-borne illness resemble those of the flu – nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and sometimes fever – thousands of additional cases may never be reported.
  • The August 2010 salmonella outbreak associated with tainted eggs made 1,300 people sick and resulted in half a billion eggs being recalled. Yet, at the Iowa Farms identified as the source of the outbreak, eggs are still being laid by infected chickens. After being pasteurized, these will soon find their way to restaurants and home kitchens in the form of liquid eggs, or as ingredients in mayonnaise or ice cream.
  • Despite several massive E. coli epidemics and emergence of a new drug-resistant E. Coli strain, contaminated ground beef continues to be used in pre-cooked products such as frozen meatballs and canned soups.
  • While there is widespread publicity about recalls, in reality a lot of contaminated food makes it to grocery stores and remains on the shelves until purchased by unsuspecting consumers. Three cases in point: in 2009, 56 of 59 recalls by the U.S. Department of Agriculture were not able to recover the amount identified as tainted. That same year, after ground beef tied to a salmonella outbreak was recalled, only 25 percent of the contaminated beef was recovered by the Denver processor. In another case, where e.coli was linked to ground beef in New York, less than one percent of that beef was actually recovered!
  • Proportionately, the most dangerous sources of food poisoning are catered events, not restaurants or meals prepared at home. A CDC researcher found that in the decade between 1998 and 2008, 833 outbreaks of food-borne illness were linked to caterers, causing nearly 30,000 illnesses, 345 hospitalizations, and four deaths. This means that there are 36 illnesses stemming from every outbreak caused by catering – compared with 13 illnesses per outbreak traced to restaurants or home cooking.

Responding to these startling statistics and vigorous lobbying by consumer organizations, Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) at the end of 2010, and it was signed into law by President Obama January 4, 2011.

A major purpose of the Food Safety Modernization Act is to give the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the power to focus on prevention rather than too-little-too-late reaction to food safety problems. The law gives the FDA new enforcement powers and new tools for:

  • Mandatory preventive controls for food facilities
  • Mandatory produce safety standards
  • Prevention of intentional contamination
  • Required inspection frequency
  • Access to industry food safety plans
  • Testing by accredited laboratories
  • Mandatory recall when needed
  • Suspension of registration
  • Improved product tracing capability
  • More recordkeeping for high risk foods
  • Importer accountability
  • Third-party certification that foreign foods meet US standards
  • Certification for high risk foods
  • Voluntary program for expediting review of imported foods
  • Authority to refuse entry if FDA is denied access to foreign facility
  • State and local partnerships for greater food safety
  • Training of foreign food producers on US food safety rules
  • Reliance on inspections by other agencies

Why was the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act so important? Read on.

The most vulnerable to food-borne sicknesses are young children, pregnant women, and the elderly. But, in truth, no one is immune. That’s because the most common carriers are poultry, beef, and leafy greens… perhaps the most popular dishes on restaurant menus and kitchen tables.

Food Poisoning Strikes Millions of Americans Each Year

Poultry accounts for 17% of incidents of food poisoning; beef accounts for 16%; and leafy greens cause 14% of outbreaks. But recent food-borne-illness outbreaks in the U.S. include a bacterial buffet of snacks and main dishes, including eggs, salami and sausage products, pistachios, peanuts and peanut products, peppers and spinach.

Here’s how disease-causing bacteria, called pathogens, wend their way from farms and processing plants to our markets and homes.

When traced to their source, many of our food products come from once-live animals, such as chickens or cattle. Animals used for food may have ingested tainted feed, or been infected by fecal matter containing e.coli. Some forms of bacteria may have been picked up in the slaughter house or the food processing plant. In any case, raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs are not sterile – so they are the first suspects when symptoms of food-borne illness appear.

In the same sense, fresh fruits and vegetables such as melons, lettuce, tomatoes, and sprouts are subject to many kinds of bacteria as they are grown. And regardless of what the packaging says, most of them are not washed – much less sterile.

Raw foods are not the only culprits, however. According to the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, even foods that have been cooked and marketed as “ready to eat” can become cross-contaminated. Bacteria are transferred easily from raw products, meat juices, or other tainted sources – or by food handlers who have not washed their hands.

Food Poisoning Strikes Millions of Americans Each Year

CDC analyses indicate that while no cause is ever found for about a third of outbreaks, the most prevalent causes of food-borne diseases are salmonella and norovirus. Salmonella contamination is often caused by rodents in packaging and distribution facilities, while norovirus sneaks into food products when workers don’t wash their hands.

Here are the pathogens on the USDA’s list of outlaws.
(Source: Food Safety and Inspection Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture.)

Bacteria Desription Symptoms
Campylobacter Jejuni Found in intestinal tracts of animals, birds; raw milk; untreated water, sewage. Can result from undercooked or raw meat, poultry or shellfish. CDC reports no decrease in incidents over the past three years. Fever, headache, muscle pain, nausea, abdominal pain, diarrhea
Clostridium Botulinum In soil, water, plants, animal and fish intestinal tracts. Toxin found in canned foods, garlic in oil, tightly-wrapped and vacuum-packed foods. Attacks the nervous system: double vision, droopy eyelids, trouble speaking, swallowing, or breathing.
Clostridium Perfringens In soil, dust, sewage, animal and human intestinal tracts. Called “cafeteria germ” because occurs when food is left out at room temperature or on steam tables. Diarrhea, gas pains after eating; usually lasting about a day.
Escherichia coli (e. coli 0157:H7) One of strains of e. coli that causes human illness; in intestinal tracts of mammals, raw milk, unchlorinated water. Found in raw or rare ground beef, contaminated water, unpasteurized apple juice/cider, uncooked fruits/vegetables. Sometimes spread person-to-person. Diarrhea, abdominal cramps, nausea, malaise; young children, especially boys, can develop hemolyticuremic syndrome (HUS) that can lead to kidney failure and even death.
Listeria Monocytogenes From intestinal tracts of humans, animals; milk; soil; leafy vegetables. Can grow slowly even when foods are at refrigerator temperature. Linked with ready-to-eat meat and poultry products and unpasteurized cheese and milk. CDC says this pathogen is responsible for highest percent of hospitilizations, deaths in U.S. Fever, chills, headache, backache, abdominal pain, diarrhea. More serious in newborns, the elderly, those with weakened immune systems. In pregnant women, can cause miscarriage or stillbirth.
Salmonella In intestinal tracts and feces of animals. One form is found in eggs. Illness comes from raw or undercooked eggs, poultry, meat, seafood; raw milk; food handlers with poor hygiene. Diarrhea, stomach pain, nausea, fever, chills, headache.
Shigella Found in human intestinal tract, but not likely in animals. Spread person-to-person, or by fecal contamination of food prepared by workers who have not washed hands. Bloody diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fever, vomiting, chills.
Staphylococcus Aureus On human skin, noses, throats; in pimples, infected cuts. Toxin causing illness multiples quickly at room temperature. Mostly spread person-to-person through improper food handling. Severe nausea, abdominal cramps, vomiting, diarrhea. Lasts 2-3 days, longer when severe dehydration occurs.

If you or a family member becomes ill from a food-borne pathogen, you should seek medical treatment if the symptoms are severe or persistent. If anyone who is ill is in a high-risk group – a pregnant woman, a baby, an elderly person or one whose immune system has been compromised – call the doctor immediately.

Make sure you save evidence so that the source of the food-borne illness can be traced. For example, save a portion of the suspected food item, wrap it securely, label it, and put it in the freezer so you can provide it to authorities or medical personnel. Be sure to save cans, cartons, and packaging materials, as well.

You can prevent multiple illnesses, and even save lives, by calling your local health department if you think the illness stems from a cafeteria, restaurant, or catered event, or from a product you purchased at a grocery or convenience store. If you have identified the source as a USDA-inspected product, also call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline.

BEFORE one of these tricky food-borne pathogens strikes your family, here are some simple steps you can take to prevent them. The most important rule is, keep cold food cold and hot food hot.

  • Wash your hands thoroughly when preparing or handling any kind of food. When you go to the bathroom, answer the phone, or are distracted by any other task, wash your hands again. Teach all of the members of your family to wash their hands too to eliminate the bacteria that are spread person-to-person.
  • Wash raw fruits and vegetables carefully. Don’t be fooled by packaged lettuce or spinach, for example, labeled “Pre-washed.” These pre-washed, pre-packaged leafy greens have been implicated in illness outbreaks – so wash them yourself just to be safe.
  • Store cold foods in a refrigerator where the temperature is kept at 40 degrees or below; and/or in a freezer at zero degrees or below. Foods housed between 40 degrees and 140 degrees invite thousands of strains of dangerous bacteria to move in and raise a family!
  • Cook foods to temperatures that will make them safe to eat. Most of the bacteria listed in the chart above can be “killed” by cooking. You can find minimum temperatures for safe cooking on meat packaging and in many recipes. Here are some examples of safe minimum internal temperatures suggested by the U.S. Department of Agriculture:
    Beef, veal; lamb steaks, roasts, chops 145 degrees F.
    All cuts of pork 160 degrees F.
    Ground beef, veal, lamb 160 degrees F.
    All poultry 165 degrees F.

    You may want to use a meat thermometer to make sure meat and poultry have achieved recommended internal temperatures. Cooked food should be maintained at a temperature of 140 degrees F., and reheated, if necessary, to 165 degrees F.

Food Poisoning Strikes Millions of Americans Each YearSchool lunches can pose a special threat to your children’s food safety. If your child takes a bag lunch to school – or if you or another family member takes a bag lunch to work – you should be especially cautious about keeping perishable foods cold during the commute and after arrival at school or work.

We know that the very young are especially vulnerable to food-borne diseases and that when these illnesses strike, they can be more severe in children. Most private and public school systems adhere to strict rules about food storage and service.

These days, parents, teachers, and administrators have access to a great deal of information about allergic reactions, and children are warned not to share their food. But, despite everything we have read and heard about food safety, most bag lunches are slapped together in the haste of getting ready for work or school.

Most of the guidelines for packing a safe bag lunch are merely common sense:

  • Wash hands, wash the food, wash cutting boards, utensils, and countertops. Make sure your bag lunch starts with a clean slate.
  • Use only food that has been refrigerated and/or cooked properly, depending upon what is appropriate and safe. Don’t leave any food out at room temperature for more than an hour or two – especially in summer, or in warm climates.
  • Do not re-use plastic bags, sandwich bags, paper bags or other packaging. Any bacteria lurking in these bags could contaminate your next lunch. So pack only enough food for one lunch meal, and ask family members to discard all of the trash after eating.
  • Keep cold lunches cold and hot lunches hot. (There’s that rule again!) You may need to include a frozen gel pack or juice box, unless there is a refrigerator available. Similarly, use an insulated thermos or other container for hot foods. If hot foods are to be microwaved, make sure that to follow package directions.
  • It’s okay to pack bag lunches the night before, as long as you refrigerate the perishable items and add fresh items – such as lettuce, tomato or fruit – the following morning.

By being cautious about food safety, you and your family can avoid contracting dangerous food-borne illnesses. But many times, food safety is out of your control.

If a family member should die, or you or a family member becomes catastrophically ill, from a contaminated food product, attorneys at Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley can help you sort out your options for justice. If you would like to learn more about how we can help, please fill out our contact form or call us at 1-800-780-8607 for a free confidential consultation.

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