With Listeria suddenly all over today’s headlines thanks to the deaths of 21 people sickened by eating contaminated cantaloupes (as of Sept. 28th), you’re probably asking yourself why you’ve heard so little about this deadly food-borne bacteria, and how to protect yourself from it.
Sadly, though, Listeria is just one of many types of bacteria that have been sneaking their way into the food supply in recent years, triggering fears of an epidemic of food poisoning.
Here, the 5 deadliest types of food-borne bacteria and how to keep yourself and your family members safe.
Let’s start with the one in today’s news. While listeriosis, the disease caused by the bacteria Listeria, is less common than some other kinds of food-borne illness and the numbers of people affected are much smaller overall, it’s by far the most deadly. Unlike most food-borne pathogens, Listeria monocytogenes doesn’t usually cause typical symptoms of gastroenteritis such as stomach cramps, diarrhea, nausea, or of the any other typical sign of food poisoning. What this means is that people who contract listeriosis often don’t know they have it for a long time, until the listeriosis shows up as something much more serious, usually meningitis or septicemia. For the elderly or people with compromised immune systems, listeriosis can be particularly deadly. (This is why pregnant women are warned to take precautions against Listeria, such as not touching or changing cat litter. Not only can Listeria be dangerous for the mother, but it can also be passed on to the unborn baby.)
2. E. coli
Just last month, an E. coli outbreak occurred in Newberg, Oregon from strawberries picked on a local farm; several people became severely ill and one person died. Three yeas ago, spinach contaminated with Escherichia coli bacteria was shipped from California to Oregon, Wisconsin, New Mexico, and many other states throughout the west, where it sickened almost two hundred people and killed several. Yet E. coli also lives happily in our intestines without causing any problems. What gives? There are several strains, and one of these, E. coli O157:H7, is much more dangerous than the others. While healthy adults usually recover from infection with E. coli O157:H7 within a week, young children and older adults can develop a life-threatening form of kidney failure called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). E. coli contamination has become much more common in the past five years, with reports every few months. The California spinach outbreak was traced back to contamination at one ranch, which had originally been a cattle ranch that was then planted with spinach. A second outbreak of E. coli a few months later was traced to lettuce that had been shipped to numerous Taco Bell and Taco John chain restaurants, where it sickened over a hundred more people. Three years ago, an outbreak of E. coli illness was attributed to contaminated Nestlé tollhouse cookie dough, but the FDA now believes that contaminated meat was responsible for the outbreak, which caused 35 hospitalization and 7 cases of HUS.
Probably the most prevalent bacteria, salmonella has been turning up all over the place in the past few years. Remember the egg scare of 2010, in which several million eggs were recalled from farms and grocery stores? And just a few weeks ago, 36,000 pounds of ground turkey packed by Cargill were recalled because of salmonella contamination. Then there was 2009, when Keebler cookies, Jenny Craig nutritional bars, and many other products made with peanuts from a Georgia peanut plant contaminated with salmonella were recalled. Spinach had a salmonella scare too, the year after it was found to be contaminated with E. coli. In July, imported papaya from Mexico contaminated with salmonella led to 10 hospitalizations and reports of salmonella poisoning in 23 states. And parents of young children know that salmonella warnings are posted in pet shops to warn of the dangers of touching turtles, lizards, and other reptiles, which can carry the bacteria on their skin and shells.
4. Staph Bacteria
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