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9 Tragic Food Outbreaks That Still Horrify Us Today

It seems that nowadays, we can’t go a full week without hearing news about some food product getting recalled due to some contamination or adulteration. Over the past half century, food poisoning has gained a lot of attention, especially here in the United States, as food safety disasters, mainly caused by fecal contamination, occasionally turn into horrific, tragic tales.

Food safety is of the utmost importance, so it’s crucial for the food industry to learn from the mistakes companies within it have made that have not just cost dollars, but also lives. Here are some of the most tragic food poisoning outbreaks that have occurred over the past half century. May we hope to never be a part of or witness one as bad as these again.

Hepatitis A In Green Onions (2003)

A Pennsylvania location of a now-extinct chain restaurant called Chi-Chi’s unknowingly sickened over 500 customers due to some green onions they received from Mexico that were contaminated with Hepatitis A. The green onions were added into salsa and chili con queso that gave people symptoms ranging in severity from vomiting to jaundice, a liver condition that causes skin and eyes to turn slightly yellow. Three people unfortunately died from the outbreak, likely due to the fatal acute liver failure that Hepatitis A can cause. To date, this is the largest outbreak of Hepatitis A in the United States.

Listeria-Contaminated Cantaloupes (2011)

Rocky Mountain Cantaloupe that was distributed across at least 28 different states was found to be adulterated with Listeria after 147 were infected in late 2011. Of those 147, 33 passed away, including at least one confirmed miscarriage of a baby, as a result of listeriosis (the disease caused by Listeria). After investigations by the CDC and FDA, owners of the farm responsible, Jensen Family Farm, pleaded guilty to misdemeanors of distributing tainted food. The farm was also forced into bankruptcy as a result of the outbreak, which is one of the deadliest recorded in United States history.

Mexican Cucumbers Tainted With Salmonella (2015)

In 2015, imported Mexican cucumbers that carried a strain of Salmonella on them were sold across 38 different states. The count of those infected by the cucumbers rose to as many as 767, with 157 of those being hospitalized and four confirmed deaths resulting from the outbreak. All of the imported cucumbers, which were brought into the US by Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce, ended up being recalled, but the damage was already wrought upon those who were unfortunate enough to consume them.

Hot Dogs Infected With Listeria (1998-1999)

Multiple hot dog brands, including Ball Park and Sara Lee Deli Meat, were responsible for an outbreak of Listeria that infected 108, killed 14 people, and resulted in four miscarriages. All of the hot dogs responsible were traced back to the Bil Mar Foods plant owned by Sara Lee, who issued a recall that halted the outbreak almost immediately. Sara Lee ended up paying $4.4 million to settle civil and criminal charges.

Jack In The Box’s Burger E. Coli Scare (1993)

Many people regard this as the food safety outbreak that put E. Coli on the map as a pathogen to watch out for. Considering it happened at a major fast food chain like Jack In The Box, infected over 500, and killed four people, it’s not hard to see why. The causative agent here was a “Monster burger” that tended to be served undercooked, making it a great environment for E. Coli O157:H7 to grow in. This strain of E. Coli can cause something called Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS), leading to kidney failure in some who become infected. Since then, the Monster burger has been taken off of the menu, but the legacy of food poisoning in fast food and E. Coli O157:H7 both live on.

Peanut Corporation of America’s Salmonella Peanut Butter (2009)

This outbreak absolutely sucks because it could have been avoided. The Peanut Corporation of America knowingly shipped out Salmonella-contaminated peanut butter across the entire country, infecting over 700 people in 46 states. Nine of those people allegedly died as a result of their infections, which were eventually traced back to the Peanut Corporation and the obstruction of justice was discovered by inspectors. The owner of the company eventually got 28 years in prison for the company’s actions, which is to date the harshest punishment levied on someone for a food-borne illness case in U.S. history.

Baby Spinach From Dole Found To Contain E. Coli (2006)

Over 200 people across 26 states got ill after eating this tainted spinach, which was found to be contaminated with E. Coli O157:H7. Half were hospitalized, 31 developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, and three eventually passed away due to kidney failure. The recall was so bad that the FDA issued daily warnings for a week telling people to not eat any spinach, something they had never had to do before. While the spinach was eventually traced back to Dole, the shock of this recall reverberated across the entire country. Leafy greens purchases would take a decade to recover following this spinach outbreak.

Listeria in Raw Milk Cheese (1985)

Los Angeles County was rocked by this outbreak, which lasted for eight months, led to 28 deaths and 20 miscarriages, and infected over 140 people in total. The causative agent was discovered to be soft cheese produced by Jalisco, who was found to be using unpasteurized milk to create their cheeses. Since then, the FDA and USDA regularly issue advisories about the potential dangers of consuming unpasteurized milk that could contain Listeria amongst other food-borne pathogens. Raw milk recalls and deaths still happen every now and then unfortunately, but none matches the magnitude of what happened in SoCal in 1985.

China’s Infamous Melamine Milk Scandal (2008)

This is arguably the most tragic of any food illness outbreak to have occurred ever. In 2008, thousands of infants in China who drank Sanlu baby formula were hospitalized with kidney problems. Six of those children, unfortunately, passed away before investigations uncovered that the baby formula had been tainted with melamine. This chemical has often been used to trick analyzers testing for protein concentrations to make formulas seem more nutritious than they were.

A horrible side effect of melamine, however, was that it would react with another compound in the formula called cyanuric acid to form crystals in the infants’ kidneys that result in severe damage, and in some cases, kidney failure. In total, nearly 300,000 children were sickened by the melamine-tainted formula, resulting in legal punishment of several Sanlu company leaders and the execution of two people who intentionally laced melamine into the milk.

Hopefully, nothing on the scale of Sanlu, or any of the other outbreaks, happens again. Food safety is still, as always, a major concern of the food industry, and one can only hope that nobody misses anything that turns deadly.

By Constantine Spyrou

Constantine's life revolves around eating, studying, and talking about food. He's obsessed with eggs, gyros, and the future of food.