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Food Poisoning

Overview :

Every year millions of people suffer from bouts of vomiting and diarrhea each year that they blame on "something I ate." These people are generally correct. Each year in the United States, one to two bouts of diarrheal illness occur in every adult. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that there are from six to 33 million cases of food poisoning in the United States annually. Many cases are mild and pass so rapidly that they are never diagnosed. Occasionally a severe outbreak creates a newsworthy public health hazard.

Classical food poisoning, sometimes incorrectly called ptomaine poisoning, is caused by a variety of different bacteria. The most common are Salmonella, Staphylococcus aureus, Escherichia coli O157:H7 or other E. coli strains, Shigella, and Clostridium botulinum. Each has a slightly different incubation period and duration, but all except C. botulinum cause inflammation of the intestines and diarrhea. Sometimes food poisoning is called bacterial gastroenteritis or infectious diarrhea. Food and water can also be contaminated by viruses (such as the Norwalk agent that causes diarrhea and the viruses of hepatitis A and E), environmental toxins (heavy metals), and poisons produced within the food itself (mushroom poisoning or fish and shellfish poisoning).

Careless food handling during the trip from farm to table creates conditions for the growth of bacteria that make people sick. Vegetables that are eaten raw, such as lettuce, may be contaminated by bacteria in soil, water, and dust during washing and packing. Home canned and commercially canned food may be improperly processed at too low a temperature or for too short a time to kill the bacteria.

Raw meats carry many food-borne bacterial diseases. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) estimates that 60% or more of raw poultry sold at retail carry some diseasecausing bacteria. Other raw meat products and eggs are contaminated to a lesser degree. Thorough cooking kills the bacteria and makes the food harmless. However, properly cooked food can become recontaminated if it comes in contact with plates, cutting boards, countertops, or utensils that were used with raw meat and not cleaned and sanitized.

Cooked foods can also be contaminated after cooking by bacteria carried by food handlers or from bacteria in the environment. It is estimated that 50% of healthy people have the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus in their nasal passages and throat, and on their skin and hair. Rubbing a runny nose, then touching food can introduce the bacteria into cooked food. Bacteria flourish at room temperature, and will rapidly grow into quantities capable of making people sick. To prevent this growth, food must be kept hot or cold, but never just warm.


Alice Catherine Evans was born on January 29, 1881, in Neath, Pennsylvania. Evans was the second of two children born to Anne Evans and William Howell. Evans taught grade school for four years because she could not afford to pay college tuition. Following her time as a teacher, Evans enrolled at the Cornell University College of Agriculture, earning her B.S. degree. Evans' professor recommended her for a scholarship, which she received, and she began her master's degree program at the University of Wisconsin where she earned her degree in 1910.

In 1911, Evans took a position with the University of Wisconsin's Dairy Division as a researcher studying cheese-making instead of continuing her education. In 1913, she moved to Washington, D.C., with the division and worked with a team on identifying the cause of contamination in raw cow's milk. By 1917, Evans' research had shown that the bacteria responsible for undulant (Malta) fever was very similar to one found when a cow experienced a spontaneous abortion. When administered to guinea pigs, the two bacteria produced similar results. Her findings were met with much skepticism but, as time went on, Evans' research began to gain support. She continued to document cases of the disease and to argue for the pasteurization process. Finally, after 1930, officials responsible for public health and safety realized the need for this process, which ultimately became a standard procedure. Evans retired from her position with the National Institute of Health in 1945 and died on September 5, 1975.

Although the food supply in the United States is probably the safest in the world, anyone can get food poisoning. Serious outbreaks are rare. When they occur, the very young, the very old, and those with immune system weaknesses have the most severe and life-threatening cases. For example, this group is 20 times more likely to become infected with the Salmonella bacteria than the general population.

Common Pathogens Causing Food Poisoning
Pathogen Common Host(s)
Campylobacter Poultry
E.coli 0157:H7 Undercooked, contaminated ground beef
Listeria Found in a variety of raw foods, such as uncooked
meats and vegetables, and in processed foods that
become contaminated after processing
Salmonella Poultry, eggs, meat, and milk
Shigella This bacteria is transmitted through direct contact with
an infected person or from food or water that become
contaminated by an infected person
Vibrio Contaminated seafood

Travel outside the United States to countries where less attention is paid to sanitation, water purification, and good food handling practices increases the chances that a person will get food poisoning. People living in institutions such as nursing homes are also more likely to get food poisoning.

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