Published On: 1.30.2013 Charlotte, NC

Common Causes of Food-Borne Illnesses

On behalf of Charles G. Monnett III & Associates


Close to 48 million Americans, or 1 in 6, will get a food-borne illness each year. It is estimated that 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of food-borne diseases. In many cases, the actual cause of the illness is never identified. However, a CDC report based on years of data has the first comprehensive estimates of what common foods are the cause of such illnesses.

The first culprit is produce. Produce accounts for almost half of food-borne illnesses, and the norovirus is usually to blame. Norovirus causes about 20 million cases of “stomach flu” each year. A new strain of norovirus, called GII.4 Sydney, is going around the U.S and is currently the leading cause of norovirus outbreak. More illnesses were attributed to leafy vegetables than to any other commodity and illnesses associated with leafy vegetables were the second most frequent cause of hospitalizations and the fifth most frequent cause of death .

Poultry is the food source with the most fatal infections. Salmonella and listeria are the common germs causing these infections. Salmonella has been found in unpasteurized milk, eggs and raw egg products, meat and poultry and lysteria can be found in foods such as soft mould-ripened cheeses and pâtés.

The dairy commodity was the second most frequent food source for infections causing illnesses and deaths. Foods in this commodity are typically consumed after pasteurization, which eliminates pathogens, but improper pasteurization and incidents of contamination after pasteurization occur. The norovirus outbreaks associated with cheese illustrate the role of contamination of dairy products after pasteurization by food handlers.

The purpose of this report was to make people aware of the potential dangers of food borne-illness and to be aware of the possible causes. The report was not intended to discourage people from eating certain foods, especially healthy produce and lean meats. Food-borne illness are caused by a wide variety of foods and the foods most often involved in outbreaks are often the foods we eat frequently and are part of a healthy diet.

To compile the report, the CDC evaluated nearly 4,600 food-borne disease outbreaks from 1998 to 2008. The researchers had information on both the specific food causing the outbreak and the specific type of illness. They estimated how much food-borne illness is accounted for in 17 food categories. Among the findings:

-Nearly half of illnesses were linked to produce. Produce includes fruits, nuts, leafy greens, and other vegetables.

-Of these produce foods, leafy greens were most often involved in food-borne illness. Norovirus was often the germ involved.

-Dairy was the second most frequent food source for infections.

-Contaminated poultry was to blame for the most deaths, involved in 19% of fatal cases. Many were linked to listeria and salmonella infections. Together, meat and poultry were to blame for 22% of illnesses and 29% of deaths.

-All 17 food categories were involved in some outbreaks, but the frequency for each category varied.

-Half of the outbreaks with a known food involved foods with ingredients from several food categories.

-Dairy and eggs accounted for 20% of illnesses and 15% of deaths.

-Fish and shellfish accounted for 6.1% of illnesses and 6.4% of deaths.

Unfortunately, food handlers are often to blame for norovirus outbreaks, according to a previous CDC study. This makes it important for everyone preparing food to be aware of how to prevent the spread of food-borne illnesses. There are simple precautions one can take, both when preparing food at home and when dining out, that can lower your risk of contracting food-borne illness.

-Prevent cross-contamination: for instance, slicing chicken on a cutting board, then using it to prepare a salad, raises infection risk.

-Washing hands often, especially when preparing food.

-Washing raw food, such as produce.

-If you buy the packaged, triple-washed products, there is not need to wash it again. The risk of contamination in your kitchen has been found to outweigh the risk of triple-washed products making you sick.

-If you, or someone else, is just getting over a stomach bug, you should not be handling food.

-When eating out, if you notice employees not washing their hands, report that to the manager or your local health department.