Foodborne Illness

The 5 biggest food poisoning scares

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There are few things that are less fun than food poisoning. There you are, going about your business, when suddenly you’re nothing short of immobilized, all because you ate the wrong thing. We’ve rounded up the ten worst food poisoning outbreaks in recent history.

When we’re at a restaurant, we just assume that all the food has been stored properly, prepared under sanitary conditions, and thrown out when it got too old to serve. While the majority of restaurants adhere to strict sanitary guidelines, there are plenty that don’t, and when there’s one little slip-up, lots of people can suffer the consequences.

There are plenty of different varieties of food poisoning out there, as well. There's Listeria, salmonella, botulism, streptococcus, hepatitis A, and who can forget good old E. coli? Foodborne illness can come from many different sources, but in many cases it’s due to undercooked meat, uncooked items that have come in contact with the same surfaces as raw meat being consumed, and raw vegetables not being washed properly.

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When a restaurant gives a customer food poisoning, they’ll usually refund the customer’s money, issue a heartfelt apology, and take a look at what went wrong while hoping they don’t get sued. But when a chain restaurant gives a customer food poisoning, dozens, if not hundreds, of customers are usually affected because so many people are served the same exact product, and the company can really find itself in hot water. Just look at what happened with Chipotle last year: The E. coli poisoning of 45 people gave the chain's reputation a hit it'll take years to recover from, but the outbreak doesn't even come close to being one of the worst of all-time. 

Mass foodborne illness outbreaks can destroy the reputations (and the stock prices) of the companies involved, and in some cases it takes years (and smart marketing campaigns) to convince the public that there’s no longer any threat. Many of the worst foodborne illness outbreaks in recent years have been the responsibility of some big and well-known food producers, as well. Read on to learn about the 10 biggest food poisoning outbreaks since the Centers for Disease Control began tracking them in the 1970s.

1. 2003: Hepatitis A

The most widespread hepatitis A outbreak in U.S. history occurred thanks to tainted green onions at a Chi-Chi’s restaurant in Monaca, Penn. At least 640 people were affected, and four died. The outbreak made national news, and Chi-Chi’s reputation never really recovered. 

2. 1993: E. coli

732 people were affected by the most infamous food poisoning outbreak in history, which nearly forced Jack in the Box out of business. 73 locations across California, Idaho, Washington, and Nevada served undercooked patties (a specially promoted “Monster Burger” wasn’t cooked long enough to kill off the bacteria). Four people died, all of them children, and 178 others were left with permanent damage. 

3.  2002: Listeria

The largest food recall in the U.S. up to that time occurred in 2002, when Pilgrim’s Pride had to recall 27.4 million pounds of sliced deli chicken and turkey after finding listeria in the drain at one of its facilities. 46 people were sickened, 7 died, and 3 women had miscarriages.  

4. 2008: Salmonella

The largest peanut butter-borne salmonella outbreak in history also resulted in the most extensive food recall in American history. The company behind it, Peanut Corporation of America, supplied peanut products to institutions like schools, prisons, and nursing homes, and at least 714 people fell ill in 26 states due to salmonella poisoning from their Georgia processing plant, with nine deaths.  No major-brand peanut butters were affected, but all peanut butter sales went down by 25 percent after the outbreak, the whole industry taking an estimated $1 billion hit. The Peanut Corporation of America went out of business soon after. 

5. 1985: Salmonella

Salmonella-tainted milk  from the Hillfarm Dairy in Melrose Park, Ill. sickened more than 16,000 people in 1985, all but about 1,000 of them from Illinois. The worst salmonellosis outbreak in history up to that time, it resulted in at least nine deaths. 

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