Illness from food-related bacteria on rise in U.S.

Amber Foley

More than 33 million Americans a year contract a food-borne illness, the Food and Drug Administration estimates.
This number has risen significantly because of an increase in imported foods and unsafe food-handling procedures.
“There has been a drastic change in the last 10 to 20 years in the food distribution system; it’s more of a global market,” said Buddy Ferguson, a public health officer at the Minnesota Department of Health. “The sanitation expectations in these countries are different than ours.”
Craig Hedberg, an associate professor in the School of Public Health, said consumption of fruits and vegetables has increased 20 to 30 percent since the 1980s, increasing the opportunity for food-borne illness.
The most common United States food-borne illness is Campylobacter jejuni, Hedberg said. The bacteria frequently contaminates raw chicken, causing flu-like symptoms.
But cases of E. coli, salmonella and listeria, among others, also arise around the United States each year.
According to a 1998 federal government survey, 2,178 cases of food-borne illnesses were reported last year in Minnesota. The survey found:
ù 1,005 campylobacter cases;
ù 581 salmonella cases, contracted from raw meat, poultry, dairy products and fish;
ù 327 shigella cases, contracted from salads and raw vegetables; and
ù 209 E. coli cases, contracted from undercooked or raw hamburger and raw milk.
Symptoms of food-borne illnesses are flu-like, including nausea, stomach cramping, diarrhea, fever, headaches and muscle pains, according to the FDA. Symptoms usually begin six to 48 hours after consuming infected food and sickness lasts from six to 10 days.
“This represents a very small portion of the actual number of outbreaks there are,” Ferguson said. “They have to go to a physician (to be reported), and a lot of people write it off as the stomach flu and don’t go in.”
More outbreaks occur during the summer, he said.
“This is because, in the summer, people have different eating habits, things like cooking outdoors,” he said. “(People) are sometimes not being careful to cook their burgers thoroughly enough.”
Food-borne illnesses cause more severe problems in infants and the elderly, who are less resistant to infection, Ferguson said.
But Hedberg said college students still need to be careful.
“It all really depends on their food behavior and food choices,” he said.
The FDA encourages consumers to prepare food more safely by thoroughly and frequently washing hands and surfaces, separating foods, cooking food thoroughly and refrigerating promptly.

Amber Foley covers the St. Paul campus and welcomes comments at [email protected]