Top food borne disease outbreaks of 2006

On a publicity level, 2006 was a bad year for chickens and spinach. The Centers for Disease Control have released a report identifying the primary sources of food borne illnesses for that year and poultry and leafy green vegetables are at the top of the list. Fruits and nuts came in third.

“The food commodities associated with the largest number of cases of illness in 2006 were poultry (21 percent of all outbreak-associated cases), leafy vegetables (17 percent), and fruits-nuts (16 percent),” according to the report which appears in this week’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Indeed, 2006 was acdc busy year. There were 1,270 outbreaks of food borne diseases which sickened 27,634 people and killed 11. Typically in outbreaks, officials note the actual numbers of people who are made ill are substantially higher but frequently go unreported as the victims either don’t recognize the symptoms or simply don’t feel they’re sick enough to merit a visit to the doctor.

An interesting contrast with the events of this year, in which the massive peanut recall has no doubt raised awareness about Salmonella, the most common cause of illness in 2006 was norovirus. Sixty-seven percent of illnesses that year stemmed from infection by that particular virus, also known as Norwalk virus. Salmonella was the second most common source of illness.

Norovirus causes the symptoms people often describe as “stomach flu” and usually passes in just a few days, although not without leaving its victims feeling as if they had been run over by a produce delivery truck. Norovirus contamination often stems from food workers who have not washed their hands properly after using the bathroom, and the body continues to shed the virus for up to two weeks once a person has become infected.

Salmonella, as in the case of the contamination at Peanut Corporation of America’s Blakely, Ga., plant, typically stems from animal fecal infections of food. Holes in the ceiling of PCA’s processing plant allowed birds inside, where they most likely contaminated already roasted peanuts with their droppings. Roaches, too, were a serious problem.

Ironically, one of the most publicized outbreaks of 2006 was related to neither norovirus nor Salmonella. A massive recall late in the summer stemmed from E. coli O157:H7 contamination of spinach grown in central California. Five people died and at least 205 were reported sick after eating the contaminated greens. The Food and Drug Administration did the unthinkable and urged consumers to simply avoid all spinach during the outbreak costing growers $350 million and putting a serious dent into sales that lasted more than a year afterward.

E. coli came in at fourth place.

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