One of my New Year’s resolutions — I call it my “professional growth resolution” — is to start writing columns in 2024. I hope this will drive more traffic to my law firm’s many existing websites and blogs — we even have this newspaper: Food Safety News. 

Bill Marler, my boss — the star of Netflix’s “Poisoned” and the world’s fastest blogger—already does his fair share of blogging. I could contribute by answering the Internet’s most-asked food safety questions. Hopefully, I can learn a thing (or 10) along the way.

This year, I’ll answer the internet’s most frequently asked foodborne illness and food safety-related questions. How will I know which questions are most frequently asked, you ask? It’s simple — I typed “foodborne illness” in the search bar on AnswerThePublic.com and found the most common Google searches on this topic.

What qualifies me to answer these questions? I’m a food safety lawyer at the only firm in the world doing this for the last 30 years. I figured I better know the answer to all these questions.

Without further ado, this week’s Foodborne Illness 101 question is:

What are the 5 major foodborne illnesses?

  1. Norovirus, commonly known as “the cruise ship virus” in the food safety community, takes the number 1 spot. Its nickname is misleading since norovirus outbreaks on cruise ships account for 1 percent of all reported norovirus outbreaks. Nevertheless, thinking of a cruise ship buffet at peak hours may be the best way to remember what there is to know about norovirus: people of all ages can get infected and sick with norovirus, which spreads very easily and quickly.

Norovirus is highly contagious. It is the leading cause of gastroenteritis (abdominal pain, diarrhea, and vomiting) and foodborne illness in the United States. Norovirus can be transmitted by touching surfaces or objects contaminated with norovirus and then placing your unwashed hand in your mouth; having direct contact with someone who has norovirus (for example, by sharing food or eating utensils with them, eating food handled by them, or caring for them when they are sick). It can even be transmitted through indirect contact with a sick person—all it takes is a few contaminated particles (I won’t get into too much detail here, in case you are having lunch) to potentially cause illness.

The good news about norovirus is that it does not multiply in foods as many bacteria do. In addition, thorough cooking destroys this virus. To avoid norovirus, make sure the food you eat is cooked completely. While traveling in areas with polluted water sources, raw vegetables should be washed thoroughly before being served, and travelers should drink only boiled or bottled beverages without ice.

For more info on Norovirus, visit https://marlerclark.com/foodborne-illnesses/norovirus 

  1. Salmonellosis—the disease caused by the Salmonella bacteria — is the second most common foodborne illness. Salmonella infection occurs when Salmonella bacteria are ingested, typically from eating food derived from infected animals or from ingesting the fecal particles of an infected animal or person (gross, I know). Per the CDC, Salmonella bacteria cause a staggering 1.35 million illnesses, resulting in 26,500 hospitalizations and 420 deaths in the U.S. every year.

Salmonella food sources include raw or undercooked eggs, raw (unpasteurized) milk, contaminated water, meat and meat products, and poultry. In the summer of 2019, I drafted a petition asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture to ban Salmonella in all meat and poultry products. The USDA didn’t quite accept that proposal, but they are taking steps in the right direction.

The problem with Salmonella is that it can end up in many things, including your pet’s food and a bi-national cantaloupe outbreak in which ten people have died. Symptoms of Salmonella infection include painful abdominal cramps, diarrhea, and fever. In a small proportion of food-borne Salmonella infections, patients may develop bacteremia, focal infection, or reactive arthritis. The incubation period, or the time from ingesting the bacteria until the symptoms start, is generally 6 to 72 hours.

For more info on Salmonella, visit https://marlerclark.com/foodborne-illnesses/salmonella 

  1. Clostridium perfringens is another common cause of food poisoning in the United States. Outbreaks of this bacterium tend to happen in settings where large groups of people are served. Keeping food at proper temperatures may be problematic—for example, significant events with catered food, school cafeterias, nursing homes, hospitals, and prisons.

C. perfringens, unlike norovirus, can multiply in foods. This bacterium makes spores, which are inactive forms of the bacterium that help it survive heat, dryness, and other environmental conditions. When food is kept at an unsafe temperature, C. perfringens can transform into active bacteria, and when ingested, it can produce a toxin that causes diarrhea.

Specific foods commonly linked to C. perfringens food poisoning include poultry, meat, and gravy. Most outbreaks of C. perfringens occur in November and December. Many have been linked to popular holiday foods like turkey or roast beef.

For more info on C. perfringens, visit www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/diseases/clostridium-perfringens.html

  1. Campylobacter is the fourth most common cause of food poisoning in the U.S. Campylobacter infection is commonly associated with the consumption of raw (unpasteurized) milk, undercooked poultry, and contaminated water; however, most Campylobacter cases are sporadic and are never traced back to a specific food or beverage. Because of this, historically, very few foods have been recalled due to the presence of Campylobacter bacteria.

Not all Campylobacter infections cause obvious illness. Symptomatic infection occurs almost exclusively in infants and young children. Infection is typically established in the lower intestines and colon and initially causes noninflammatory diarrhea. This is followed by a locally invasive stage that leads to cell damage and intestinal inflammation (dysentery), stomach cramps, and severe diarrhea (sometimes bloody). The main recognized medical complications of Campylobacter infection are Guillain-Barré Syndrome, reactive arthritis, and post-infectious irritable bowel syndrome (P-IBS).

For more info on Campylobacter, visit https://marlerclark.com/foodborne-illnesses/campylobacter 

  1. Finally, the fifth most common cause of food poisoning in the U.S. is Staph food poisoning. Staph food poisoning is a gastrointestinal illness caused by eating foods contaminated with toxins produced by Staphylococcus aureus. 

About 25 percent of people and animals have Staph on their skin and nose. It usually does not cause illness in healthy people, but Staph can make toxins that can cause food poisoning. Food can become contaminated when people who have Staphylococcus aureus bacteria on their skin do not wash their hands properly before touching food. If the food is left at room temperature or undercooked, the bacteria can multiply and produce toxins. Despite contamination, many foods have a normal taste and odor.

Symptoms of Staph poisoning — sudden onset of nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, and diarrhea— usually develop within 30 minutes to 8 hours after eating or drinking a contaminated food product and last no longer than one day. Severe illness is rare.

For more info on Staph food poisoning, visit www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/diseases/staphylococcal.html

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