Gross. Scary. Dangerous.
Foodborne illnesses are all these things. They pose threats to the health of people and businesses. And in the most severe cases, they threaten people and companies with death.
Here's a look the five nastiest things that you or your customers could ingest.
This particular pathogen, carried on raw meat and poultry, is fairly common in the food supply. Close to 1 million people a year are infected by the bacteria. For years, the results of consuming clostridium perfringens were thought to be minor — diarrhea and abdominal cramps.
But recent research suggests that clostridium perfringens may be far more dangerous than thought. Researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College believe the bacteria may be traveling to people's brains, where it triggers multiple sclerosis.
The parasite that causes this infection lives in raw and undercooked pork. It's believed to live within the guts of some 60 million Americans — the vast majority of whom never experience symptoms because their immune systems effectively resist the infection.
But if a woman becomes newly infected while pregnant, or if someone with a severely compromised immune system comes in contact with toxoplasma, the results can be frighteningly severe.
Toxoplasma kills more people than any other foodborne pathogen in U.S. And it's a leading cause of intellectual disability.
If there is any good that came from the listeria outbreak in 2011, it's that food producers were forced to look long and hard once again at the risks in the food supply.
That outbreak killed 33 people, caused one miscarriage, and sickened 147 people in 28 states. It also bankrupted the cantaloupe company at the center of the outbreak.
Listeria is a bacteria genus with 10 distinct species. Outbreaks have a tendency to spread widely and wreak havoc. A 2002 outbreak traced to Pilgrim's Pride sliced deli products killed seven people, sickened 46, and caused three miscarriages. A 1998 outbreak traced to Sara Lee deli meats and Ball Park franks killed 21 people. A 1985 outbreak traced to cheeses killed 52.
None of that is a surprise to disease experts, who are well aware of the power of Listeria. The nastiest disease it can cause, called listeriosis, has a mortality rate of 20%.
This foodborne pathogen produces a toxin in human brains. And that toxin produces one of the nastiest diseases known to man: botulism.
Botulism in all its forms (it can also result from wounds or ingestion of spores) can bring respiratory failure, paralysis, and death.
There are roughly 145 botulism cases per year in the U.S. Of those, about 15% come from food
The good news is that foodborne botulism is almost always caused by home-canned foods. So avoiding the disease is fairly simple for most people.
Most strains of this common bacteria aren't all that difficult to deal with. There are 1.4 million cases of salmonella poisoning a year. Most cause nothing more severe than diarrhea. And most healthy people fight off the infection without tremendous difficulty.
But salmonella has a nearly infinite number of variations. And the one with the nastiest potential is Salmonella enterica subsp. enterica (which has at least 2,500 serovars, or distinct variations, of its own). This variation in particular is at the root of typhoid fever.
Typhoid may have disappeared from much of the developed world with the advent of modern sanitation techniques, but it remains a menace in poorer parts of the world.
And it must always be thought of as the deadliest form of foodborne illness for one simple, and horrible, reason: The two deadliest outbreaks in U.S history were both typhoid fever.
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