Food poisoning strikes as many as 1 in 4 each year, CDC says
ATLANTA - Next time you have a case of diarrhea that lasts a day or more, chances are better than 1 in 3 that it was food poisoning.
As many as a quarter of Americans have a foodborne illness each year - though only a fraction of those cases gets linked to high-profile outbreaks like the recent salmonella-peanut scare, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Outbreaks are dramatic instances," says Dr. Robert Tauxe, a CDC specialist on the subject. But they highlight a health threat that many people exaggerate and misunderstand, according to some experts.
Scientists have counted more than 250 food-related types of illness - from viruses to bacteria to parasites. Most common are Norwalk-like viruses - notorious for sickening cruise ship passengers. They account for about two-thirds of known food poisoning cases, according to the CDC.
Two types of bacteria, campylobacter and salmonella, are the next most common. Campylobacter is blamed for about 14 percent of food poisonings, salmonella for roughly 10 percent.
The exact toll of these and other bugs is not known.
Ten years ago, a team of CDC scientists put together the best enduring estimate of how many Americans get food poisoning each year: 76 million illnesses, which resulted in 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths.
No more recent figures are available. But the current numbers must be close to 87 million cases, 371,000 hospitalizations and 5,700 deaths, according to an Associated Press calculation that used the CDC formula and current population estimates.
The statistics seem even more alarming in the context of high-profile food poisoning outbreaks in recent years: salmonella poisoning linked to hot peppers and tomatoes from Mexico that sickened more 1,400 last year; an E. coli outbreak from bagged spinach in 2006; and even deadly cases of hepatitis A from green onions in 2003.
The recent peanut-related salmonella outbreak has caused more than 640 confirmed illnesses in 44 states and been linked to nine deaths. It was traced to a Virginia-based company, Peanut Corp. of America, which makes minor-label peanut butter, peanut paste, and other products.
Those numbers just scratch the surface: A case is confirmed only after a lab test is sent to the CDC. Many sick people just soldier on without seeing a doctor.
Health officials assume that for every salmonella case, there are three dozen unreported cases. By that calculation, the latest peanut-related outbreak has sickened closer to 20,000 people.
But the problem could be a lot worse.
The number of confirmed food poisonings has basically held steady in recent years. It may seem worse because more advanced testing allows investigators to better link cases and identify outbreaks, CDC officials said.
Also, despite sometimes dramatic problems in food production and inspections, the US food supply is still considered one of the safest in the world, several experts said.
Food poisoning affects an estimated 25 percent of Americans every year. That compares with roughly 30 percent of people in industrialized countries, according to the World Health Organization. The toll is much higher in developing countries, where diarrheal diseases are a major cause of death for children.
But not all of our food comes from within our borders, as demonstrated by last summer's vegetable-caused outbreak.