It occurred to me that haven't written much about the recent peanut-related salmonella outbreak – and that's in spite of the fact that it was responsible for killing nine people and sickening more than 640. The fact that I've only mentioned a public health nightmare of this magnitude in passing is telling. Think about it: this first decade of the 21st century has been rife with significant tainted food outbreaks. Last summer, there was another salmonella outbreak that sickened more than twice as many as this year's peanut scare – about 1,400 people. If you'll recall, that outbreak was traced to peppers and tomatoes imported from (surprise, surprise) Mexico. Before that, there was the panic over E. coli-tainted spinach. And if you think that this seems like a lot, here's the bad news: you don't know the half of it.
A new study by the CDC estimates that as many as one in four Americans contract a foodborne sickness every year. Only a very few of these are widespread outbreaks. Usually it just results in stomach cramps, vomiting, or diarrhea that the victims sometimes don't even associate with something they ate. According to the CDC, as many as one in three of these cases is actually the result of food poisoning.
There are a whopping 250 kinds of food-related illnesses out there, so it can be tough to dodge them all. The CDC's food poisoning expert Dr. Robert Tauxe believes that the U.S. has "one of the safest" food supplies in the world. But as we saw with the Mexican pepper and tomato outbreak, it's not always the U.S. food that's the problem. "Increasingly," Tauxe says, "Our food supply is the world's."
But it's not necessarily the food that's always to blame. Often it's basic hygiene — or the lack of it. The widespread failure to simply have restaurant employees wash their hands results in the spread of infectious disease more often than just about anything short of biological warfare. In fact, research shows that a leading cause of food poisoning in the U.S. is residual fecal matter on the hands of restaurant employees who forget to scrub after, well… you know. Tens of millions get sick every year for this reason alone.
Sadly, restaurants don't like to spend a lot of time examining their food-handling employees. They give them written instructions, according to the law in a particular state, and that's about it. If reading this is making you seriously re-think your food or restaurant choices — or even eating out at all — I don't blame you.
Feeding your mind with food poisoning facts,
William Campbell Douglass II, M.D.