According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly a quarter of Americans suffer from food poisoning each year, though few of those instances are linked to high-profile outbreaks.
“Outbreaks are dramatic instances,” says Dr. Robert Tauxe of the CDC.
But according to experts, they highlight a health threat that most people misunderstand.
Researchers have found more than 250 food-related illnesses, ranging from bacteria to parasites. Some are similar to the Norwalk virus which accounts for two-thirds of food-poisoning cases.
Salmonella and campylobacter are the next most common. Both account for 10 to 14 percent of food-poisoning cases.
A decade ago, CDC researchers estimated how many Americans got food poisoning each year. They estimated that there were 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths.
According to a new CDC formula the numbers appear to be closer to 87 million illnesses, 371,000 hospitalizations, and 5,700 deaths a year.
A number of recent food-poisoning outbreaks including a 2003 hepatitis A outbreak from green onions, a 2006 E. coli outbreak from bagged spinach, and the recent peanut-related salmonella outbreak are making researchers fear that things are getting worse.
The numbers issued by the CDC only track confirmed cases, meaning those tested in the lab. Most people do not see the doctor when they suffer from food-poisoning.
Health officials believe there are three dozen unreported cases of salmonella poisoning for every reported case.
That estimate would increase the victims in the latest peanut-outbreak from 640 confirmed cases to roughly 20,000 unconfirmed sicknesses.
Despite the dramatic number of possible cases, the U.S. food supply is still the safest in the world according to experts.
Food poisoning affects 25 percent of Americans each year, compared to 30 percent of people in industrialized nations, according to the World Health Organization.
The number is much higher in developing countries where diarrhea is a major cause of death among children.
Unfortunately, some American food does not come from within its borders.
“I usually say it is one of the safest in the world,” said Tauxe about the U.S. food supply. “But increasingly, our food supply is the world.”
According to Dr. Andi Shane, a pediatric infectious disease specialist, people often accredit stomach problems to food poisoning due to news of recent outbreaks.
“I think a lot of people in general say, ‘I have symptoms. I must have eaten something that’s caused this,'” said Dr. Shane. Patients don’t often consider that the infection may have come from some other means, she added.
Many find the recent outbreak unsettling because it involved prepackaged peanut butter, said Dr. Akiko Kimura of the California Department of Public Health.
“It’s ready-to-eat, and so there wasn’t anything the consumer could do,” she said.
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