“Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that each year roughly 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) gets sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases.”
– Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
The proliferation of foodborne illness cases has become a public health concern, with some experts calling the situation a crisis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that one in every six Americans contracts a foodborne illness, generally known as food poisoning, each year. Nearly 130,000 people are admitted to the hospital, and approximately 3,000 die.
More than 250 different types of diseases can cause food poisoning. Additionally, scientists and researchers are continually discovering new strains of common sources, including E. coli, Salmonella, Listeria, and norovirus.
The following discusses the causes and effects of food poisoning, as well as response mechanisms instituted to mitigate any situations involving foodborne illness. They include the various agents of food poisoning, associated symptoms, and methods of public education.
Causes of Food Poisoning
The sources of food poisoning can be broken down into four classes: allergens; bacteria and viruses; molds, toxins, and contaminants; and parasites. Of these classes, bacteria are the most common source of foodborne illness.
Bacteria and viruses
As previously mentioned, bacteria and viruses are responsible for a disproportionate number of food poisoning cases. Bacteria and viruses result in the most hospitalizations and deaths from food poisoning in the United States. coli, Campylobacter, Listeria, Salmonella, Clostridium perfringens, and norovirus (Norwalk virus) are all common bacterial and viral types of food poisoning. Bacteria and viruses generally cause food poisoning through the consumption of contaminated food and water, as well as by touching and interacting with animals hosting a bacteria or virus.
According to foodsafety.gov, parasites are “organisms that derive nourishment and protection from other living organisms known as hosts.” Methods of transmitting parasites include personal contact, as well as through water and soil. Some of the most common types of parasites include tapeworms, roundworms, and protozoa. Toxoplasma gondii, the parasitic strain that causes toxoplasmosis, is the leading cause of hospitalization and deaths stemming from parasite-based food poisoning.
Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE), which estimates that 15 million Americans—including 1 in 13 children—has a food allergy, has classified the situation as an epidemic. Consuming food that creates an allergic response can lead to a number of health complications, including serious illness and death. Common sources of food allergies include eggs, milk, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, wheat, soybeans, and peanuts.
Mold, Toxins, and Contaminants
Food poisoning linked to chemical toxins (including melamine or pesticides) and natural toxins (including pufferfish or mushrooms), as well as mold growth comprise this classification. Research conducted on food poisoning trends conclude that this source of food poisoning is the least common. The consumption of food that contains mold growth can lead to illness, as can the inherent or chemical toxins present on food surfaces.
Effects of Food Poisoning
The effects of food poisoning depend on a number of factors, including one’s health condition, age, and the type of contaminant. Each of the four main causes mentioned in the previous section have overlapping and unique symptoms.
In rare cases, food poisoning may cause long-term effects. At-risk populations are mostly likely to demonstrate long-term effects of food poisoning. They include older adults, cancer patients, young children, and people with abnormal immune systems. Serious long-term effects may include brain and nerve damage, chronic arthritis, kidney failure, and death.
Bacteria- and virus-based food poisoning symptoms generally include one or more of the following: abdominal cramps, diarrhea, fever, and vomiting. The bacterium Listeria, which causes Listeriosis, can cause additional symptoms such as muscle weakness and confusion.
Symptoms of parasitic food poisoning depend on the agent. Protozoa parasites commonly cause gastrointestinal symptoms and diarrhea. Another type of agent, helminthic parasites, can cause a broad range of symptoms ranging from diarrhea and abdominal pain to muscle pain, malnutrition, cough, weight loss, and neurological symptoms.
Symptoms resulting from a food allergen may vary ranging from mild to severe in nature. They generally affect the skin, gastrointestinal tract, respiratory tract, and—in severe cases—the cardiovascular system. Anaphylaxis, a severe and potentially life-threatening allergic reaction, can result from consuming foods to which one is allergic.
Educating the Public
The United States government (in addition to many other countries) has instituted a number of resources pertaining to food poisoning and other foodborne illnesses. A number of online resources are available to educate citizens on the prevention and treatment of food poisoning.
Many federal agencies, such as the CDC, USDA, and the FDA, offer information on foodborne illnesses, as well. Besides general information, the agencies post details on previous foodborne illness outbreaks.
Other government websites contain helpful information, as well, including foodsafety.gov, a comprehensive website that provides information on a number of topics, including food poisoning.