Food

Potentially Deadly Food Pathogens You Should Know About—and 9 Ways You Can Avoid Them

More than half of U.S food poisoning cases are traced to unsanitary restaurant food handling practices.

If you’ve ever suffered an upset stomach after eating a meal out, you’re definitely not alone. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 6 people or 48 million Americans contract food poisoning every year with an estimated 3,000 deaths attributed to foodborne illness diseases.

A new series of reports released by the CDC reveal that more than half of those cases can be traced to unhygienic food handling practices of restaurants and delis, with foodborne illnesses no longer decreasing in the United States. Bottom line? Food safety progress in our country has stalled.

In compiling the data, researchers analyzed kitchen practices of hundreds of restaurants across the United States, identifying two main causes of foodborne illness:

The storage and preparation of ground beef, chicken and leafy greens.

80 percent of workers did not regularly cook with meat thermometers and only 43 percent of managers knew the temperature to cook chicken so it is served safely. Even more disturbing, only 65 percent of restaurants rejected greens that looked decomposed. This is despite the fact that many greens came in at temperatures above the FDA standard 41 degrees Fahrenheit guidelines.

The hygiene practices of sick food workers.

40 percent of restaurants don’t enforce hand-washing policies for kitchen workers or designate cutting boards for raw poultry and 20 percent of workers admitted coming to work when they were sick with vomiting or diarrhea because they couldn’t afford to take a sick day.

According to Dr. Harry A. Milman, consulting toxicologist and president of ToxNetwork.com, part of the problem stems from the quick turnover of staff in restaurants and the increase in temporary employees which hinders adequate kitchen training. He told AlterNet:

“The quality of the food, the manner of preparation and how sanitary the techniques used plays a large role in food poisoning. It’s imperative to train workers so that they know how to prepare food. Many of these restaurants take on inexperienced helpers, do not have good training facilities and have an extremely fast turnaround. In turn, health safety gets lost in the process."

Milman says the most typical foods to be concerned about include shellfish, chicken and leafy greens, and foodborne illnesses related to bacterial contamination from food preparation:

“The classic cases that come before me emanate from food buffets. The problem with buffets is that all the food is paired together. The larger amounts of food you need to prepare, the more it tends to sit around and be subject to cross contamination. The question then becomes, how long has this food been sitting around at room temperature, which ultimately allows bacteria to grow at a much faster rate."

The difficulty with foodborne illness is that too little is known about the environmental factors that lead to outbreaks, with food poisoning attributed to a number of viruses, bacteria and microbes (known as pathogens). The real toll of food poisoning is unknown because only the most serious cases lead people to seek medical attention and only a small number of those cases are actually tested for foodborne pathogens.

Nonetheless, the CDC says the most lethal organisms can be narrowed down to about half a dozen pathogens, which it identifies annually in its "Incidents and Trends in Foodborne Illness" reports. CDC spokesperson Dana Pitts told AlterNet:

“The 1000 or more reported outbreaks that happen each year reveal familiar culprits: Salmonella and other common germs. There are other pathogens that are not as common that we have seen from select multistate outbreaks throughout this summer and fall, ranging from Hepatitis A in pomegranate seeds from Turkey to Cyclospora in produce to Listeria in soft cheese. Once you dig into the many possibilities of how our food can become contaminated, you learn that outbreaks are just the tip of the iceberg, and can be puzzling to even our nation's food safety experts. While we have made significant progress in decreasing the risks of food contamination, the numbers tell us that food poisoning is no longer decreasing in the United States.”

So which pathogens are the worst offenders causing the most illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths in the United States? Here’s what consumers need to know:

Norovirus:Norovirus is the most contagious and common cause of foodborne disease outbreaks in the United States. Each year, the virus causes 19-21 million illnesses and contributes to 56,000-71,000 hospitalizations and 570-800 deaths. Unlike most other pathogens, norovirus can be spread not only through contaminated food or water, but also by touching contaminated surfaces, causing gastroenteritis, which can lead to stomach pain, nausea, diarrhea and vomiting. The food sources that cause the most outbreaks are produce, shellfish, ready-to-eat foods touched by infected food workers or any other foods contaminated with vomit or feces from an infected person. If infected, drink plenty of water, but if that's not possible, seek medical attention to avoid dehydration.

Salmonella: Over the last 15 years, salmonella infection has not declined, predominantly because the bacteria is found in so many types of food and contamination can occur anywhere, from the field to the cutting board. In 2013, salmonella was responsible for $365 million in direct medical costs and causes more hospitalizations and deaths than any other type of germ found in food. It is the second most common foodborne illness.

Common food sources of salmonella infection include poultry, eggs, red meat, raw milk and dairy products. In recent times it has spread to unpasteurized orange juice, cantaloupe, tomatoes, alfalfa sprouts, and even fresh produce. The most alarming fact about salmonella is the rate at which it multiplies ,causing a manifestation of symptoms such as gastroenteritis, typhoid and sepsis. Antibiotics are often necessary if the infection spreads from the intestines to the bloodstream.

Listeria: Listeria is a serious bacterial infection found in soil and water and some animals. Those infected with listeria experience fever, muscle aches and gastrointestinal symptoms. The bacteria can be present in raw milk and foods made from raw milk and also lives in processed meats. It can even grow in cold temperature of the fridge making it particularly deadly. In July of this year, Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese Company recalled all of its cheeses following an outbreak. At present, listeria is the third leading cause of death from food poisoning in the United States.

E-Coli:Escherichia Coli infection has reduced by 50 percent since 1997, however, it continues to be a major problem in the United States. The CDC estimates that 73,000 people are sickened, 2000 are hospitalized and 60 die each year from E-coli poisoning. E-coli is a bacterium that lives in the intestinal tract of human and animals. While some types are harmless, others such as the O157:H7 strain are dangerous and can make you very sick, cause bloody diarrhea and sometimes cause kidney failure and death. Though initially tied to consumption of undercooked ground beef, recent outbreaks have been also linked to lettuce, leafy greens, apple cider and raw milk.  Coming into contact with infected human or animal feces can also spread E-coli. 

Toxoplasmosis: Think parasites are not a first-world problem? Think again. Toxoplasmosis is a parasite that is considered to be a leading cause of death attributed to foodborne illness in the United States. It can be contracted through eating undercooked, contaminated meat; drinking contaminated water; an organ transplant or blood transfusion; or exposure to feces from an infected cat. More than 60 million men, women and children in the United States carry it, but very few have symptoms because the immune system usually keeps the parasite from causing illness. When people do have symptoms, usually those with weakened immune systems, it usually feels like the flu. Cooking and pasteurization kill the parasite.

Campylobacter: Campylobacter is a bacterium that is one of the most common causes of diarrheal illness in the United States. Most cases occur as isolated incidents, which make it difficult to diagnose an outbreak. FoodNet surveillance estimates that about 14 cases are diagnosed each year per 100,000 persons in the population. The pathogen is associated with eating raw or undercooked poultry or from cross-contamination of other foods by these items. Outbreaks have also occurred after consuming unpasteurized dairy products, contaminated water, poultry, and produce. In 2011, Campylobacter was found on 47% of raw chicken samples bought in grocery stores and tested by the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS).

Panic Button?

Before you hit the panic button just yet, it’s important to note that certain groups in our population are at much greater risk of getting food poisoning than others. According to CDC’s Vital Signs, those who are more likely to bear the brunt of infections include children under five years of age, pregnant women and their unborn babies, adults over 65 years and people with weak immune systems. Such groups should be especially careful.

Nevertheless, it’s not just restaurant food handling practices consumers ought to be cautious about. According to Simon & Luke attorney Ron Simon, who files hundreds of foodborne illness lawsuits every year on behalf of victims, the majority of cases arise at the production level industry-wide:

“The implementation of mass food production has caused some major problems. When there is an outbreak in the system of mass production, that outbreak multiplies over and over and becomes a repetitive, widespread problem. Large companies can produce thousands of jars a day. When there is something inherently wrong with their production line, it causes all of those jars to get contaminated and that in turn spreads until somebody gets caught, usually when consumers get affected. On the contrary, you don’t typically see this with small-scale food production.

"Usually, the amount of restaurant outbreaks is much smaller because these businesses are not mass-producing food but rather using small batches of potentially contaminated foods. While mass production of food in general has been positive because it allows prices to come down for consumers, if is not done correctly, it can cause multiple foodborne outbreaks.”

So how can we push those in the food industry to re-evaluate the way they process and prepare food to address this growing problem? Ron Simon says there are various government health agencies and law firms attempting to clean up the national food supply and prevent illnesses by enforcing proper food handling processing procedures:

“By pursuing claims against those in the food industry on behalf of victims, we can implement higher standards, lab testing and proper operating and maintenance of equipment used in both production and transportation of food to the U.S consumer. We do a lot of wok and there is a lot more that needs to be done to make food safer for everyone."

Dr. Milman agrees:

“Food contamination is an increasing concern. How do we handle it and make sure it is safe and FDA-approved?  Obviously when there are cutbacks, a lack of funding and lax facilities, you run into problems. These places need to be inspected regularly and constantly improved so that those in the industry remain on their toes."

The CDC says it’s working with the state and local health departments to advance the use of environmental health assessments as part of its investigations to educate those in the food industry, including restaurants. It plans to launch a formal surveillance system to improve data collection from foodservice inspection agencies next year.

In addition, the CDC will begin tracking the underlying environmental causes of foodborne outbreaks in restaurants on a national scale.  However, CDC asserts that the prevention of foodborne illness is a shared responsibility, from the farm to the table. Pitts said:

“To reduce your risk, be savvy about how germs can be found in contaminated food and sometimes make you sick. There are things that you can do to protect yourself. For example, do not eat or drink foods containing raw eggs or raw milk. Knowing the rules of food safety will help prevent germs sometimes found in food from making you sick."

Following these simple measures may reduce your chances of contracting food poisoning: 

  1. Food preparation: wash surfaces and your hands before preparing food. It is important to remove germs which can live in kitchens, including utensils and cutting boards.
  2. Shop locally: the less food has to travel the less chance it has to get contaminated.
  3. Rinse fresh fruits and vegetables under running water. But don’t wash meat, poultry or seafood, which can result in spreading bacteria to surfaces.
  4. Don’t cross-contaminate food. Keep food and preparation separate.
  5. Cook food at the right temperature. While many people think they can tell when food is done by checking the color, there is no way to be sure it’s safe without using a food thermometer: 145°F for whole meats; 160°F for ground meats and 165°F for all poultry.
  6. Keep your refrigerator below 40°F and refrigerate foods properly. Bacteria can grow in many foods between 40 and 140°F.
  7. Store food within two hours.
  8. Don’t prepare food when you are sick with diarrhea or vomiting.
  9. Report suspected foodborne illness to the local health department.

Jodie Gummow is a senior fellow and staff writer at AlterNet.