The History of Food Poisoning in the United States
Illness-causing pathogens and microbes have been affecting humans since the beginning of our history. Outbreaks of food poisoning can be traced as far back as the Stone Age. The only difference between now and then is that, now, the causes of illness are identifiable and knowledge of how to protect against and prevent illness has been acquired. Yet, despite years of history, ever-growing scientific knowledge, and continually improving sanitation and control techniques in the food industry, identifying and controlling outbreaks is still a tremendously challenging task. As the human population grows and globalization continues, addressing the problem of foodborne illness becomes increasingly complex. The history of food poisoning outbreaks in the United States demonstrates the endemic problems with food processing that continue today.
The United States itself has a long history of deadly foodborne disease outbreaks. Some of the deadliest outbreaks reported occurred in the early 1900s. Outbreaks in 1911 and 1922 were caused by streptococcus in raw milk and, when combined, resulted in 70 deaths and over 2,400 illnesses. In 1919, canned olives contributed to a severe outbreak of botulism; this outbreak forced a necessary change in canning methods to protect the public health. The deadliest outbreak in U.S. history, which occurred in 1924-1925, was caused by oysters that were harvested from water exposed to sewage. Typhi bacteria in the water contaminated the oysters and, of the 1,500 people who fell ill, 150 ultimately died.
Five outbreaks that have occurred in the last two decades have made the top-ten list of the deadliest in recorded U.S. history, evidencing the continuing severity of the problem despite scientific and technological advancement. Most recently, in 2011, an outbreak that spanned 28 states occurred. The outbreak, which affected over 140 people, was caused by listeria in cantaloupes. In the final update published by the CDC, 33 deaths and one miscarriage were reported in total. An outbreak of salmonella in peanut butter and peanut paste occurred in 2008-2009, spanned 46 states, and caused 714 illnesses and nine deaths. In 2006, an outbreak occurred due to E. coli in fresh Spinach, which caused over 200 infections spread throughout 26 states and resulted in 102 hospitalizations and 5 deaths. Deli meat was responsible for an outbreak of listeria, causing eight deaths and three stillbirths in 2002. Lastly, in 1998, 100 hospitalizations and twenty-one deaths resulted from listeria contamination of hot dogs.
The year 2012 has been rampant with salmonella outbreaks, as well as those caused by E. coli and listeria. Again, as the U.S. food supply is produced globally and the growing population places increasingly heavy demands on the food production industry, tackling foodborne illness outbreaks will become a more complex, yet refined, process in the future. New responsibility and authority is being given to the agencies that oversee safe practices in the food industry. For more information on these new responsibilities and authority, see the FAQ on the Food Safety Modernization Act, which was signed into law on January 4, 2011.