You are here

Foodborne Diseases

6 April, 2016 - 17:26

Prokaryotes are everywhere: They readily colonize the surface of any type of material, and food is not an exception. Outbreaks of bacterial infection related to food consumption are common. A foodborne disease(colloquially called “food poisoning”) is an illness resulting from the consumption of food contaminated with pathogenic bacteria, viruses, or other parasites. Although the United States has one of the safest food supplies in the world, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported that “76 million people get sick, more than 300,000 are hospitalized, and 5,000 Americans die each year from foodborne illness.” 1

The characteristics of foodborne illnesses have changed over time. In the past, it was relatively common to hear about sporadic cases of botulism, the potentially fatal disease produced by a toxin from the anaerobic bacterium Clostridium botulinum. A can, jar, or package created a suitable anaerobic environment where Clostridium could grow. Proper sterilization and canning procedures have reduced the incidence of this disease.

Most cases of foodborne illnesses are now linked to produce contaminated by animal waste. For example, there have been serious, produce-related outbreaks associated with raw spinach in the United States and with vegetable sprouts in Germany (Figure 13.8). The raw spinach outbreak in 2006 was produced by the bacterium E.colistrain O157:H7. Most E.colistrains are not particularly dangerous to humans, (indeed, they live in our large intestine), but O157:H7 is potentially fatal.

Figure 13.8 (a) Locally grown vegetable sprouts were the cause of a European E. coli outbreak that killed 31 people and sickened about 3,000 in 2010. (b) Escherichia coli are shown here in a scanning electron micrograph. The strain of E. coli that caused a deadly outbreak in Germany is a new one not involved in any previous E. coli outbreaks. It has acquired several antibiotic resistance genes and specific genetic sequences involved in aggregation ability and virulence. It has recently been sequenced. (credit b: Rocky Mountain Laboratories, NIAID, NIH; scale-bar data from Matt Russell) 

All types of food can potentially be contaminated with harmful bacteria of different species. Recent outbreaks of Salmonella reported by the CDC occurred in foods as diverse as peanut butter, alfalfa sprouts, and eggs.



Epidemiology is the study of the occurrence, distribution, and determinants of health and disease in a population. It is, therefore, related to public health. An epidemiologist studies the frequency and distribution of diseases within human populations and environments.

Epidemiologists collect data about a particular disease and track its spread to identify the original mode of transmission. They sometimes work in close collaboration with historians to try to understand the way a disease evolved geographically and over time, tracking the natural history of pathogens. They gather information from clinical records, patient interviews, and any other available means. That information is used to develop strategies and design public health policies to reduce the incidence of a disease or to prevent its spread. Epidemiologists also conduct rapid investigations in case of an outbreak to recommend immediate measures to control it.

Epidemiologists typically have a graduate-level education. An epidemiologist often has a bachelor’s degree in some field and a master’s degree in public health (MPH). Many epidemiologists are also physicians (and have an MD) or they have a PhD in an associated field, such as biology or epidemiology.