10 food/bacteria combos that can make you very, very sick

I used to be a happy person. That was before I took a FOODSAFE™ course, a comprehensive safe food-handling training program developed here in the Province of British Columbia. Suddenly, newly educated, I became exquisitely aware of deadly food pathogens lurking everywhere.

Those soggy dish cloths, my Baba’s apron I wipe wet hands on, the knife used to cut (horrors!) first the raw chicken and then the green peppers, the creamy puddings left out on the counter a bit too long – each of these past sins made me nervous about eating virtually anything prepared in my own kitchen. I became just a wee bit obsessive about bleaching my chopping boards. I wondered how on earth I’d managed all those years to avoid poisoning my two children.

And don’t even start on the hidden health perils of eating out . . .

About one in six of us falls ill each year because of something we ate. Most people suffer from relatively mild symptoms and recover quickly, often with no medical attention at all. I learned from my FOODSAFE™ instructor that there is actually no such thing as “the 24hour flu”, which in reality is most likely food poisoning brought on by one of those pathogens (which is simply what bacteria that cause disease are called).

Experts tell us that in 80% of cases, the culprit involved in foodborne illness is not actually identified. Almost 20% are attributed to one of 31 known bacteria. Nor is the guilty food source identified, or the way in which the food became contaminated.

Foodborne illness can be far more deadly than just that 24-hour flu caused by consuming tainted food.

In 2008, for example, deli meats produced by a contaminated meat processing plant run by Maple Leaf Foods Inc. in Toronto were blamed for dozens of cases of listeriosis across Canada, including nine confirmed and 11 suspected deaths caused by the outbreak.

And now the University of Florida’s Emerging Pathogens Institute has taken a first step at identifying the specific pathogen-food combinations that pose the greatest public health threat, both in terms of short- and long-term economic costs as well as pain and suffering.

Dr. J. Glenn Morris, director of the EPI and an author of the report, told the Wall Street Journal’s Katherine Hobson.

“The public-health impact isn’t just the number of cases of 24-hour diarrhea.  This analysis shifts the focus towards the diseases that cause longterm disability and death.”

That’s important, says Dr. Morris, not so much because you should avoid poultry out of fear of falling ill from ingesting Campylobacter – the top pathogen-food health threat on this list –  but because the information can help direct preventive efforts.

The Florida report warns that a substantial number of foodborne diseases  may be caused by improper food handling, storage and preparation in restaurants, cafeterias, deli counters, and other professional kitchens. Hint to food service managers: look into a staff training program like FOODSAFE™. Everybody else: watch this short video.

And finally, here are the Top 10 worst bacteria, the food that is the most likely culprit for each, and the public health cost every year of the most serious foodborne illnesses:

  1. Campylobacter in poultry: $1.3 billion annually, 9,500 lost quality adjusted life years (QALYs)
  2. Toxoplasma in pork: $1.2 billion, 4,500 QALYs
  3. Listeria in deli meats: $1.1 billion, 4,000 QALYs
  4. Salmonella in poultry: $700 million, 3,600 QALYs
  5. Listeria in dairy products: $700 million, 2,600 QALYs
  6. Salmonella in complex foods: $600 million, 3,200 QALYs
  7. Norovirus in complex foods: $900 million, 2,300 QALYs
  8. Salmonella in produce: $500 million, 2,800 QALYs
  9. Toxoplasma in beef: $700 million, 2,500 QALYs
  10. Salmonella in eggs: $400 million, 1,900 QALYs

Some of the top 10 pathogen-food combinations listed by the Florida researchers pose major risks during pregnancy. When expectant mothers become infected with listeria or toxoplasma, for example, particularly from deli meats, soft cheeses and raw or undercooked beef, pork, or other meat, it can lead to miscarriage, stillbirth or life-long problems in the affected child, such as severe mental impairment and physical disability.

Read the rest of the Wall Street Journal article about this list.

See also: Heart Patients Can Avoid Food Poisoning By Avoiding These Foods Entirely originally published on my other site, Heart Sisters.

4 thoughts on “10 food/bacteria combos that can make you very, very sick

  1. Thanks Carolyn. I really, really needed to know this information.

    Can you write a post soon about how blissful ignorance can be?
    I would like to follow my bliss, now that I need to stop eating.


      • Hey there,

        Seriously I got sick to the point I lost 50 lbs and my liver was destroyed and was honestly sick on and off for two years from a horrible breakfast I ate! Hollandaise sauce, eggs and bacon, from Perkins restaurant, 11 of us got sick in total and honestly I wanted to literally die I got so sick!

        So when I saw this I really wanted to comment, its amazing how little people know about food preparation etc. I read a study that said in Ottawa which has 1,000,000 people there are only on average 400-500 flu cases per year and almost all other symptoms come from food contamination and honestly being lazy etc with food.

        Honestly I have become a total food hypochondriac now its crazy! so this posting made me feel much better about not being totally crazy because clearly its right to be a little worried.

        Thank you for this posting and trying to educate people on not being stupid!


        • What a horrible experience you had! My FOODSAFE instructor told me the same thing: there’s no such thing as the 24-hour flu – it’s likely mild food poisoning instead. We don’t want to be so fearful of harmful bacteria that fear interferes with the enjoyment of regular everyday life – but we could all be a lot safer and more careful when it comes to food handling. The video in this post is a good place to start. Thanks for your comment, Graham.

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