According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are about 76 million cases of food-borne illnesses in the United States each year. Most of these cases are mild and bring about symptoms for only a couple of days. But each year, food-borne diseases result in approximately 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths. The more serious cases tend to occur in very young or old people, in those with an illness that already compromises their immune system, and in healthy people inflicted with a high dose of an organism.
Food can become contaminated in many ways. There are many foodborne microorganisms in healthy animals raised for food, usually in their intestines. During slaughter, meat and poultry carcasses may become contaminated when they come in contact with intestinal contents. Fruits and vegetables can be contaminated when irrigated or washed with water tainted with sewage or manure. Some hen’s ovaries can get infected with Salmonella, resulting in the contamination of even a normal looking egg. Filter feeding shellfish including oysters can concentrate microbes from sewage dumped into the oceans, or Vibrio bacteria, which are naturally present in seawater.
Food can then be infected by humans who handle the food or through cross-contamination from another raw agricultural product. If food handlers are themselves infected, their unwashed hands can contaminate food with hepatitis A or Norwalk viruses, or with Shigella bacteria. And even food that is fully cooked can become contaminated if it comes in contact with raw foods containing pathogens, with the food’s drippings, or with a cutting board, knife or other utensil that was used to prepare both foods without washing in between.
But once contaminated, many microorganisms need to be present in food in large numbers in order to cause disease. That is why the way food is stored and handled after it is contaminated is also very important. Bacteria in lightly contaminated food left overnight can reproduce and make food highly infectious by the next day. Freezing and refrigeration can prevent most bacteria from multiplying. Two notable exceptions are yersinia enterocolitica and listeria monocytogenes. High salt, sugar or acid levels also prevent bacteria from growing.
Heating food to an internal temperature above 160°F for even a few seconds will kill most parasites, viruses and bacteria. An exception is clostridium bacteria, which produces a spore that is heat-resistant. This bacteria can only be killed at temperatures above boiling, which is why canned food must be cooked under pressure at a high temperature as part of the canning process. Staphylococcal toxin, which is produced by certain bacteria and can cause vomiting, is not inactivated even when boiled.
Food poisoning can also occur if a naturally poisonous substance is used to prepare a meal, or if a pesticide was inadvertently added to one of the ingredients. People get sick each year from eating poisonous reef fishes, or after mistaking poisonous mushrooms for safe ones.
If you believe that you or a loved one has been injured by contaminated food, please call or email our experienced personal injury lawyers today.