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The Litigated Dish: Can foodborne illness cause death?

Ok, I understand that discussing the potential lethality of foodborne illnesses is not the most uplifting topic, but it is a crucial aspect of food safety that often ranks high among the Internet’s frequently asked questions. My responsibility is to provide informative answers, even if they aren’t the most cheerful.

Here are the facts:

According to the CDC, roughly 1 in 6 Americans, or 48 million people annually, fall victim to foodborne illnesses. Among them, 128,000 are hospitalized, and sadly, 3,000 lose their lives.

There are 31 known pathogens responsible for causing foodborne illnesses. While many of these are monitored by advanced public health systems, the majority of cases are attributed to “unspecified agents,” where the specific pathogen remains unidentified.

Norovirus is the leading cause of foodborne illnesses, while Salmonella, the second most prevalent, tops the charts for hospitalizations and fatalities. In the United States, Salmonella alone claims 420 lives each year. Recently, a Salmonella outbreak linked to Mexican cantaloupe resulted in 15 fatalities in the U.S. and Canada.

Salmonella infections can lead to complications, including persistent diarrhea causing fluid loss and dehydration. In some cases, the bacteria can exit the gastrointestinal tract, triggering severe or life-threatening infections.

Another less common but highly dangerous foodborne pathogen is Listeria monocytogenes. Although causing only 1,600 illnesses annually in the U.S., it claims 260 lives, resulting in a more than 16% fatality rate for those affected. (In contrast, salmonellosis carries a mere 0.03% chance of death.)

Listeriosis manifests as noninvasive or invasive forms. The invasive form affects specific high-risk groups, including pregnant women who face a 20-fold increased risk. This severe form can lead to complications such as septicemia, meningitis, miscarriage, stillbirth, and premature labor.

Recent outbreaks, like the HMC Farms peach-related listeriosis incident affecting 11 individuals and resulting in one death, highlight the ongoing challenges. Additionally, the Frugals Listeria outbreak in Pierce County claimed three lives.

Certain populations, such as older adults, infants, pregnant women, individuals with compromised immune systems, and those with chronic conditions, face a higher risk of death or severe complications from foodborne illnesses. It underscores the importance of prioritizing food safety measures to protect vulnerable groups.

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