According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year there are an estimated 76 million cases of foodborne illness in the U.S. that occur as a result of contaminated food. Approximately 325,000 cases of food poisoning lead to hospitalization annually, with more than 5,000 deaths resulting from foodborne illness complications. While most cases of foodborne illness, commonly known as “food poisoning,” are not serious, the condition can be serious or even fatal for at-risk populations including children, pregnant women, the elderly, or those with weakened immune systems or chronic illnesses. Unsafe foods can include foods that are contaminated with pathogenic (infection-causing) bacteria such as E. coli, food products with undeclared allergens, or foods with toxic levels of certain chemicals or metals.
The public does not often hear about recalled food products until months after the alert is issued, leaving them vulnerable to contaminated meat, fish, milk, peanut butter, spinach, or juices that still remain on retail shelves. Many times it is only high-profile food recalls that reach the media and the public, such as the E. coli outbreak in bagged spinach and beef, salmonella contamination in peanut butter in 2007 and again in 2009, and other large food recalls. Foods containing undeclared allergens are also frequently recalled when they are found to contain nuts, wheat, eggs, or other ingredients that can be dangerous if consumed by certain people with allergies.
Food can be contaminated at any time during production, shipping, preparation, or storage. When food is contaminated by bacteria, parasites, or viruses and then ingested by consumers, it can cause a variety of foodborne illnesses, including diarrheal conditions, kidney failure, meningitis, botulism, permanent paralysis, or even death. Proper food safety measures must be taken to lower the risk of food contamination and foodborne illness.
Examples of bacteria that are often the cause of foodborne illness include: