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The 10 Deadliest Outbreaks in U.S. History — Revisited

The list of the 10 most deadly outbreaks of food- and waterborne illness in U.S. history, previously published by Food Safety News, has been revised for a presentation in Sacramento to the California Environmental Health Association.

Added to the list is a 1903 outbreak of typhoid fever in Ithaca, NY, which caused 82 deaths, among them 29 Cornell University students. 

Screen Shot 2012-04-04 at 10.39.36 PM.pngIn 1903, Ithaca’s public water, used for drinking and cooking, became polluted with Salmonella Typhi when the Six Mile Creek dam was being built by the privately held Ithaca Water Company.

The Ithaca Water utility, which had only recently been purchased by William Morris, opted not to build a filtration plant before going ahead with the dam construction to increase capacity, even though the water had long been suspect.

To make matters worse, a worker camp at the construction site had only one outhouse, which was just 20 steps from Six Mile Creek, and often workers just used the creek. A construction crew included workers from an area of Italy that had seen frequent outbreaks of typhoid fever, and one or more of the Italian workers may have been asymptomatic carriers of the S. typhi pathogen.

Ithaca’s typhoid outbreak was nearly forgotten after more than a century, but last year author David Dekok’s book “The Epidemic” was published. In the fashion of gripping fiction, Dekok tells the true story with stunning detail.

Cornell students died not knowing their own university was supplying Ithaca Water’s need for debt financing, and was declining to do anything that would help sick and dying students at the expense of the water utility.

This included refusing to make Cornell University’s own supply of safe artesian water available to off-campus boarding houses, where most of its students lived, and where many died.

The addition of the Ithaca typhoid fever outbreak to the most-deadly ranks drops from the list the 2006 E. coli O157:H7 outbreak involving bagged spinach grown at Paicines Ranch in San Benito County, California.  There were five fatalities in that outbreak, in which about 200 people became ill after eating bagged spinach.

The only other revision in the list involves the 1919 botulism outbreak caused by canned ripe olives, previously reported as being responsible for killing 15. The death toll was actually 19.

With the revisions, the nation’s deadliest foodborne outbreaks have taken the lives of 423 people, with 232 of those succumbing to typhoid fever. The other deaths were due to Listeria (93), Streptococcus (70), botulism (19) and Salmonella Typhimurium (9).

The list uses an unofficial count of 36 deaths for last year’s outbreak caused by Listeria-contaminated Colorado cantaloupes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says 30 died, but has not updated its final investigation report to include those who were confirmed to be part of the outbreak and have since died.

Finally, according to the historic record, there was a 60-year period, from 1925 to 1985, when there apparently were no foodborne illness outbreaks with enough fatalities to be included among these worst epidemics.

The ten deadliest food- and waterborne outbreaks are:

1. Typhoid fever, 1924-25

Oysters from Long Island, NY, held in polluted waters, sickened more than 1,500 in New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.; 150 died.

2. Typhoid fever, 1903

A public water source in Ithaca, NY, was polluted from a dam construction site, resulting in typhoid outbreak involving 1,350 people; 82 were killed, including 29 Cornell University students.

3. Streptococcus, 1911

Raw milk delivered door-to-door in the Boston area was responsible for a strep outbreak; 

48 people died.

4. Listeria, 2011

“Rocky Ford” cantaloupes from Colorado became contaminated, probably in the packing facility, sickening at least 146 in 28 states; 36 died.

5. Listeria, 1985

Mexican cheese made by a Los Angeles company sickened mostly Hispanic women, many who were pregnant; 28 died.

6. Streptococcus, 1922

Raw milk delivered door-to-door in Portland, OR was contaminated; 22 killed.

7. Listeria, 1998

Ball Park hot dogs and Sara Lee deli meats were recalled after Listeria was found in the Michigan processing plant; 21 killed.

8. Botulism, 1919

Canned ripe olives from California sold to inland states were contaminated and caused outbreaks in three states; 19 died.

9. Salmonella Typhimurium, 2008-09

Peanut butter and paste contaminated with S. Typhimurium caused at least 714 illiness in 46 states; 9 killed.

10. Listeria, 2002

Sliced turkey meats from Pilgrim’s Pride were responsible for a multiple state outbreak; 8 killed.

© Food Safety News
  • Laura Giudici Mills

    Food Safety News, please get the facts straight: The tainted bagged spinach that caused the 2006 E.coli 0157:H7 outbreak was grown on the Paicines Ranch in San Benito County, not “California’s Salinas Valley,” which is located in Monterey County.

  • http://www.foodsafetynews.com/contributors/bill-marler/ bill marler

    Good catch – Has been fixed.

  • Lewis Kimble

    I learned so much more reading the article than during the presentation.

  • Gary Johnson

    This neglects the outbreak of cryptosporidiosis that sickened more than 400,000 people in the Milwaukee area in the 1990′s. That was pretty big.