Food-borne illnesses aren’t something anyone wants to think about, but we’ve probably all experienced at least once after eating some questionable buffet food or roadside delights that are not being kept at safe food temperatures. They’ve been all over the news recently, too, with everything from a whopping 206 million eggs to every single leaf of romaine lettuce in the country being recalled for contamination or potential contamination.
What are the most common diseases caused by contaminated foods, and where does this contamination come from? Here are five examples.
- E. Coli
Escherichia coli, most frequently shortened to the familiar E. coli, is a broad name for a very diverse group of bacteria found in cases of food contamination. It is actually a bacterium that is found naturally in the digestive tracts of humans and many animals. Most of the strains are harmless — or even essential — for proper digestion. It’s the pathogenic strains you have to worry about – the ones that have been shown to cause illness and even death in humans.
The most dangerous of these is known as Shiga toxin-producing E. coli or STEC. This strain is that has been linked to the current romaine lettuce outbreak that has infected 121 people across 25 states and has even resulted in one death in California. This entire outbreak has been tied back to romaine lettuce grown in one specific region of the country, in the area around Yuma, Arizona.
Salmonella is the reason you can’t eat raw meat or drink unpasteurized milk. This is another bacterium that is found in raw food products. While it can be killed by proper cooking or the pasteurization process that makes things like milk and cheese safe to consume, factory contamination can make it difficult to avoid.
That is exactly what happened with the massive egg recall. Rose Acre Farms recalled more than 200 million eggs because they were contaminated with salmonella and sickened 22 people.
How do salmonella-contaminated eggs make it out of the factory? While we may never know the exact chain of events that lead to Rose Acre Farms releasing so many contaminated eggs out into the world, chances are it was because of a lack of proper testing or sanitation inside the processing factory. Without appropriate microbiological testing, contaminated food that makes it to your local grocery store can put shoppers at risk.
- Listeria Monocytogenes
In 2011, even eating a melon was dangerous thanks to a lovely bacterium called listeria. Whole cantaloupes being produced by a farm in Colorado were found to be contaminated with listeria, a bacterium that can cause symptoms like diarrhea and other uncomfortable gastrointestinal symptoms. Listeria is so pervasive, though, that it rarely stays inside the digestive tract, resulting in systemic infections, as well as miscarriage or stillbirth in pregnant women.
This outbreak was one of the biggest in the history of modern medicine, and one of the first large outbreaks tied to produce. It infected 147 people across 28 states, resulting in 33 deaths and one reported miscarriage.
Norovirus is one common food-borne illness that no one talked about until the 2015 outbreak that shut down multiple Chipotle restaurants across the country and made more than 234 people sick. Norovirus is an extremely contagious virus that can survive in food or water and can be transmitted across contaminated surfaces. It causes gastrointestinal inflammation, leading to vomiting, stomach pain and diarrhea.
Chipotle has also had issues with salmonella and E. coli in the past. If you want to avoid contracting a food-borne illness, it might be worth it to skip this popular Mexican grill.
Staphylococcus, often shortened to staph for ease of communication, is a widespread bacteria — it probably exists on your skin or in your nose right now, as it does on roughly 25 percent of the healthy population. When it’s consumed in contaminated foods, it causes food poisoning. It is also one of the oldest recorded causes of food contamination — dating back to 1884 when contaminated cheese caused an outbreak at a social event.
You can prevent staph infections by adequately cleaning all equipment, preventing cross-contamination between food types and cooking all hot foods and storing them at a high enough temperature to inhibit bacterial growth. Staph bacteria cannot survive the cooking process.
It can be hard to avoid food-borne illness if you’re not growing or butchering all your own food. But by being vigilant about where your food comes from, it can be easier to avoid getting sick from your favorite foods. Much of the responsibility falls on food producers, as well — it’s up to them to provide proper micro bacterial testing to ensure the food they’re offering is safe to consume.