Each year, approximately 1 in 6 Americans are struck with a food-borne illness. Over 100,000 of them are hospitalized, and 3,000 die. While this group is dominated by isolated incidents, serious taints that can be tracked back to one source are also common. When food crises like the recent outbreak of listeria from cantaloupe and the recall of packaged salads due to salmonella concerns strike, who takes the lead on addressing the problem, and what can you do to make sure you're not affected? We've got the answers.
Government Agencies: Who Does What?
As with most things involving the U.S. government, understanding which agency handles which type of issue can be convoluted. Overall, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) acts as the "detective agency" for outbreaks of food-borne illness, investigating cases and tracing them to a potential source. Using the FoodNet surveillance system and the PulseNet DNA fingerprinting database, the CDC can track the spread of foodborne viruses and bacteria and see how these illnesses mutate over time.
Many other departments are responsible for setting safety guidelines for foods and ensuring that they meet the requirements:
- The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) handles meats, poultry and eggs.
- The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for all imported food, as well as packaged food distributed across state lines.
- The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is in charge of ensuring that water quality is high enough that seafood can be consumed. It also leads efforts to ensure all foods contain a safe level of pesticides, if any.
- Local health departments conduct inspections of restaurants, grocery stores, and cafeterias.
The Most Common Foodborne Illnesses
A variety of viruses and bacteria can travel into your body via the food you eat, but these are among the most common.
- Salmonella: Most frequently found in raw and undercooked eggs, salmonella can travel in almost any type of fresh food: meat, poultry, fruits, vegetables, milk, seafood, cheese, and juice. Symptoms include diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps, and typically begin 12-72 hours after eating. Those with compromised immune systems are at particular risk.
- E. coli O157:H7: Common foods that sicken people with E. coli include raw meat (especially ground beef), unpasteurized milk and juices, raw fruits and vegetables, and water. It's also transmissible between individuals. Symptoms usually begin 3-4 days after consumption, and include severe (sometimes bloody) diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and vomiting. Most E. coli victims have little to no fever. Children under 5 with suspected E. coli should receive medical care immediately, as they have an increased risk of acute kidney failure.
- Listeria: Typically transmitted through deli meat, hot dogs, and prepared salads, listeria can also attach itself to fruit and vegetables or soft cheeses made with unpasteurized milk. Symptoms include fever, muscle aches, and occasionally gastrointestinal issues. The infection can spread to the nervous system, causing headaches, a stiff neck, and loss of balance. Pregnant women should be especially wary, as listeria can cause miscarriages.
- Campylobacter: Usually found in raw or undercooked meat, poultry, and shellfish, as well as in raw and unpasteurized milk, campylobacter can also travel in the water supply. Symptoms include diarrhea, cramping, abdominal pain, and fever, which typically emerge 2-5 days after eating. If it gets into the bloodstream, campylobacter can be life-threatening.
I Think I've Got Food Poisoning. What Should I Do?
Here's the FDA's advice: If you're sure that your sickness is attributable to a certain food, and you have any of it remaining in your house, mark it as "Dangerous" with a Sharpie and put it in the freezer. If you're able, take note of where and when the food was consumed, and when the symptoms began.
If you or a sickened family member are pregnant, an infant or young child, elderly, or have an immune deficiency, seek treatment immediately. These groups have a more serious risk of being hospitalized or dying from food-borne illnesses. If you experience any severe symptoms, like a high fever, excessive nausea and vomiting, or bloody stool, you should also get in touch with your doctor right away.
If the suspected food is a commercial product, came from a restaurant or food-service facility, or was served at a large gathering, contact your local health department.
If you suspect meat, poultry, or eggs as the source of the problem, call the USDA's Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854). They'll need information from the packaging to take action, so be sure to locate it (if it's still around) before calling, and wash your hands well before and after touching it.
Want to know about the latest in food recalls? Visit Recalls.gov or FoodSafety.gov. Also, this CDC page has details on the latest cases, as well as historical information on recalls dating back to 2006.