A life-long foodie asked me a few days ago what I thought would be the next big outbreak in our food supply. He was right. It is going to happen - soon. It is not a question of whether we will have another large-scale case of contamination, but when we will have it and what
the cause will be.
If I was betting on outbreaks instead of the stock market, I would probably choose one of the deadly bacteria. Three or four years ago, I might said it would be E.coli 0157. H7. - Not the 'good' kind of E.coli bacteria that helps us to digest our food, but the kind that produces very dangerous toxins and totally ruins our intestines for years to come. That is, if it does not kill us. As bad as Shigella dysenteriae. I should know. I have been hospitalized with both of these deadly bacteria and almost died from the hemorrhagic colitis they produced. No fun.
E.coli 0157:H7 has quite frequently cropped up in America's fresh produce (yes, some of imported from our trading partners,but also produce grown locally) like alfa-alfa, lettuce, unpasteurized cider and apple juice, ground meat, raw milk, and other products. One of the recent large outbreaks (June, 2009) was a multi-state one in refrigerated pre-packaged cookie dough. Most of those who became seriously ill were in the age range of 2 to 19. (Guess who eats raw cookie dough...).
Two or three years ago, I would probably have laid my money on the bacteria Listeria monocytogenes, because such a high percentage of food industry workers carry it. Estimates vary, but let's say around 30-40% and increasing. Some people carry it but have no symptoms. It is also often living happily in our soil, irrigation and other water, wild animals and vegetation. This is the bacterium that is so deadly for pregnant women, people with HIV/AIDS and anyone else with a compromised immune systems. Almost a third of the infections are fatal. The greatest threat from L. monocytogenes comes from ready-to-eat foods, that we eat as they come from the store (cooking would kill the bacteria). Some recent outbreaks have been in raw cheeses, cooked crabs, smoked fish and tuna sandwiches (see the alerts).
But these days, I would probably bet on one of the salmonella sp. causing the next outbreak. It may not seem as deadly as E.coli 0157:H7, or L. monocytogenes, but it is becoming very, very common. Only about 2-3% of cases are ever reported (that is, enter the system as linked to this bacteria in food), so there is much more related illness around than we are aware of. Salmonella seems to survive everywhere. Look at some of the outbreak alerts over the last few months - ground meat, green onions, parsley, tahini and more, Of course, the peanut outbreak that originated in the PCA plant in Georgia, and then the one in Texas, is still around too. It even likes to set up home in red pepper. What next? An outbreak in coffee? I can give up red pepper for a while - if I must - but not my coffee....