Foodborne Illness

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Foodborne Illnesses are diseases caused by contamination of food by a number of different pathogens. Common pathogens include: Noroviruses, E. coli, Salmonella, Listeria, and Campylobacter. According to the CDC, "Many outbreaks result from food being contaminated when it is being prepared or served by a food worker with unwashed or improperly washed hands. Scientific evidence shows that preventing illness begins with the basics. Wash your hands thoroughly, with soap, before and after handling food. It can prevent illness and even death."[1] However, sometimes outbreaks of foodborne illness are large scale when contamination occurs on a farm or in a large processing plant and then the contaminated food is shipped to stores and/or restaurants around the country. An example of such a large-scale outbreak is the 2011 outbreak of listeria in cantaloupe, which originated on one farm in Colorado.


Between 1998 and 2009, the CDC tracked 14,090 different outbreaks of foodborne illness in which two or more people got sick. They resulted in a total of 286,836 illnesses, 9694 hospitalizations, and 207 deaths. The average outbreak caused 20 illnesses and 1 hospitalization. However, most outbreaks were smaller, as the median outbreak caused only 8 illnesses.[2]

In over 40 percent of the outbreaks tracked, the food responsible was never identified. These unsolved outbreaks resulted in 40.4% of illnesses, 26.5% of hospitalizations, and 24.6% of deaths.

Largest Outbreaks

Between 1998 and 2009, the CDC tracked 33 outbreaks that sickened more than 500 people. (They found a total of 434 outbreaks that sickened 100 or more people.)

The 10 largest outbreaks between 1998 and 2009 include:[2]

  • 1. A May 2006 outbreak of Campylobacter jejuni from pasteurized milk in a California prison that sickened 1644 people.
  • 2. A 2008 multistate outbreak of Salmonella in peppers that sickened 1500 people. (The large size of this outbreak is likely due to the difficulty health officials had in tracking down the cause of the disease. Thus, it was a well-publicized outbreak that might have led to more reported and confirmed illnesses than would otherwise be the case, and the outbreak continued for a long time before the source was found.)
  • 3. An April 2006 Colorado outbreak of Norovirus that sickened 1200 people.
  • 4. A January 2003 outbreak of Shigella sonnei in Texas that sickened 964 people.
  • 5. A September 2002 outbreak of Clostridium perfringens in an Illinois prison that sickened 950 people.
  • 6. A June 1998 outbreak of E. coli in Illinois linked to macaroni salad and potato salad that sickened 916 people.
  • 7. A May 2007 outbreak of Shigella flexneri from tomatoes in a New York restaurant that sickened 886 people.
  • 8. A November 2003 outbreak of Clostridium perfringens in corn served at a Louisiana prison that sickened 880 people.
  • 9. An April 2005 outbreak in a California prison that sickened 872 people.
  • 10. A January 2001 outbreak of Norovirus in a Tennessee restaurant that sickened 811 people.

Deadliest Outbreaks

In 2011, an outbreak of listeria in cantaloupe caused 25 deaths, making it more deadly than any on the list below.[3]

The 10 deadliest outbreaks between 1998 and 2009 include:[2]

  • 1. An October 1998 multistate outbreak of Listeria monocytogenes in hot dogs that killed 21 people.
  • 2. A September 2008 multistate outbreak of Salmonella in peanut butter that killed 9 people.
  • 3. A July 2002 mulistate outbreak of Listeria monocytogenes in sliced turkey that killed 8 people.
  • 4. A January 2003 outbreak in Florida from fried rice in a restaurant that sickened and killed 7 people.
  • 5. A May 2000 multistate outbreak of Listeria monocytogenes in sliced turkey that killed 7 people.
  • 6. A February 2004 outbreak of Rotavirus in a Pennsyvania nursing home that killed 6 people.
  • 7. An August 2006 multistate outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 in spinach that killed 5 people.
  • 8. A November 2001 outbreak of Salmonella in a Texas prison that killed 4 people.
  • 9. A May 2000 outbreak in a Florida from pizza in a restaurant that killed 3 people.
  • 10. A June 2007 Massachusetts outbreak of Listeria monocytogenes in pasteurized milk that killed 3 people.

Foodborne Illness in Prison

Some of the largest foodborne illness outbreaks occur in prisons. The largest foodborne illness outbreak the CDC tracked between 1998 and 2009 was a Campylobacter jejuni outbreak due to pasteurized milk that occurred in May 2006 in a California prison. A total of 1644 people became ill and 7 were hospitalized. None died.[2] Between 1998 and 2009, four of the 10 largest foodborne illness outbreaks occurred in prisons.[2]

Multi-State Outbreaks Tracked by the CDC

Multi-state outbreaks in the United States in recent years include:[4]


  • Jensen Farms Cantaloupes - Listeria monocytogenes
  • Ground Turkey - Salmonella Heidelberg
  • Whole, Fresh Imported Papayas - Salmonella Agona
  • Alfalfa and Spicy Sprouts – Salmonella Enteritidis
  • Travel to Germany - Shiga toxin-producing E. coli O104
  • Turkey Burgers - Salmonella Hadar
  • Lebanon Bologna - Escherichia coli O157:H7
  • Del Monte Cantaloupe - Salmonella Panama
  • Hazelnuts - Escherichia coli O157:H7


  • Alfalfa Sprouts - Salmonella I 4,[5],12:i:-
  • Shell Eggs - Salmonella Enteritidis (2010 Outbreak of Salmonella in Eggs)
  • Cheese - Escherichia coli O157:H7
  • Cheesy Chicken Rice Frozen Entrée - Salmonella Chester
  • Frozen Mamey Fruit Pulp - Salmonella Typhi (Typhoid Fever)
  • Restaurant Chain A - Salmonella Hartford and Salmonella Baildon
  • Alfalfa Sprouts - Salmonella Newport
  • Shredded Romaine Lettuce from a Single Processing Facility - Escherichia coli O145
  • Red and Black Pepper/Italian-Style Meats - Salmonella Montevideo
  • Beef from National Steak and Poultry - Escherichia coli O157:H7


  • Beef from Fairbank Farms - Escherichia coli O157:H7
  • Beef from JBS Swift Beef Company - Escherichia coli O157:H7
  • Prepackaged Cookie Dough - Escherichia coli O157:H7
  • Alfalfa Sprouts - Salmonella Saintpaul
  • Peanut Butter from Peanut Corporation of America - Salmonella Typhimurium
  • Pistachios - Salmonella (multiple types)


  • Raw Produce - Salmonella Saintpaul
  • Beef from Kroger/Nebraska Ltd - Escherichia coli O157:H7
  • Malt-O-Meal Rice/Wheat Cereals - Salmonella Agona
  • Cantaloupes - Salmonella Litchfield


  • Totino's/Jeno's Pizza - Escherichia coli O157:H7
  • Banquet Pot Pies - Salmonella I 4,[5],12:i:-
  • Topp's Ground Beef Patties - Escherichia coli O157:H7
  • Dry Pet Food - Salmonella Schwarzengrund
  • Veggie Booty - Salmonella Wandsworth
  • Peanut Butter - Salmonella Tennessee


  • Taco Bell - Escherichia coli O157:H7
  • Tomatoes - Salmonella Typhimurium
  • Fresh Spinach - Escherichia coli O157:H7

Resources and articles

Related Sourcewatch articles


  1. Foodborne Disease Outbreaks Are Deadly Serious – What You Can Do to Avoid Them, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Accessed October 9, 2011.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 CDC's FOOD Database, Downloaded on October 9, 2011, Data crunched by Jill Richardson.
  3. Mark Astley, "Packagin Plant Contamination Led to Listeria Outbreak - FDA," Food Production Daily, October 21, 2011.
  4. CDC - Outbreaks, Accessed October 9, 2011.

External Resources

External Articles