Every year, there are about 9.4 million episodes of foodborne illnesses in the United States, according to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These illnesses can be caused by bacteria, viruses, toxins, chemicals and parasites.
In 2009 and 2010, 1,184 people were hospitalized and 23 people died from foodborne illnesses. In that short period of time, 1,527 foodborne illnesses caused 29,444 people to become sick. The most common causes of foodborne illness during that time were norovirus, salmonella and E. coli.
Two salmonella outbreaks have occurred so far in 2013. More than 80 people have become sick in each case. One outbreak was caused by imported cucumbers. The other outbreak was from food at a Las Vegas restaurant named Fire Fly.
E. coli sickened more than 30 people from Farm Rich frozen meals this year. There were 3 deadly outbreaks in 2011, including a listeriosis outbreak from cantaloupes that led to 30 deaths, the second-deadliest outbreak in U.S. history since 1970.
When a food is suspected of causing people to become ill, it can be recalled, or taken off the market. Since 2009, there have been recalls for the following foods: cheese or cheese-containing products, oysters, raw milk, salami, bison, sirloin steak, peanut butter, cookie dough, cantaloupes, papaya, salmon, strawberries, hazelnuts, Romaine lettuce, ground turkey, tuna steak, unpasteurized dairy, eggs, beef and frozen entrées.
Any food that is handled by people or processed near sewerage can become contaminated. In 2009 and 2010, the largest number of foodborne disease outbreaks was due to beef, dairy (mostly unpasteurized), fish and poultry.
Experts can often identify the microorganism that caused an outbreak. The most common microorganisms are bacteria: Campylobacter sp. in unpasteurized dairy foods, Salmonella sp. in eggs and shiga-toxin producing E. coli in beef.
Other foods that can cause illness are:
That's because these foods:
Symptoms usually show up 1 to 4 days after eating contaminated food. The most common symptoms of infection are:
If diarrhea is bloody or doesn't resolve in 3 days, or if there is also a fever over 101.5° F, it's time to call the doctor. Most illnesses and outbreaks (when two or more people become ill) never get reported to the CDC because people think they just have the flu and they don't go to the doctor.
More severe outcomes can occur, such as:
The tips below may help you get the health benefits of eating fresh fruits and vegetables while avoiding foodborne illnesses.
For more information on food safety go to the U.S.D.A.'s Food Safety and Inspection Service.
Marc O'Meara, R.D., L.D.N., C.D.E. is a senior nutritionist at the Brigham and Women's Hospital and the Roxbury Heart Center, and also works in the lipid clinic at Children's Hospital Boston. He graduated from the University of Vermont in 1991 with a bachelor of science in dietetics. He completed his dietetic internship at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in 1992.