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Food-Borne Illness and Ways to Prevent It

foodborne disease

Story at-a-glance -

  • Worldwide nearly 1 in 10 people fall ill from eating contaminated food every year, and 420,000 die as a result
  • Multiple foodborne illness outbreaks have occurred in a matter of months at Chipotle, arguably one of the best fast-food chains in the U.S.
  • Mcr-1, a gene mutation that makes bacteria resistant to a last-resort antibiotic, is being increasingly found around the world and has now been linked to imported meat

By Dr. Mercola

The World Health Organization (WHO) has released its first-ever global estimates of foodborne diseases, and the numbers aren't pretty. Nearly one in 10 people fall ill from eating contaminated food every year, and 420,000 – that's nearly half a million! – die as a result.1

Regions in Africa and Southeast Asia had the highest incidence of foodborne illness, and the highest related death rates, in the WHO report, but that's not to say developed countries are immune.

Each year in the U.S., 1 in 6 Americans, or 48 million people, get sick from consuming contaminated food or beverages.2 You know you're in trouble when food from Chipotle, 1 of only 2 U.S. fast food chains that earned an "A" rating in a recent scorecard of U.S. restaurants,3 is making people sick.

Chipotle Vows to Serve Safe Food After Illness Outbreaks

As of early December 2015, more than 50 people have been infected with Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli O26 (STEC O26) after eating at Chipotle. The outbreak has spanned nine states, and nearly two dozen people have been hospitalized as a result.4

To date, it remains unknown which of Chipotle's 64 ingredients may have caused the E.coli-related illnesses. A separate outbreak also occurred in Boston, where dozens of students from Boston College came down with norovirus after eating at a Chipotle restaurant.

A norovirus outbreak was also linked to a Simi Valley, California chipotle restaurant in September 2015. In that outbreak, more than 200 people became ill.5 Norovirus is often spread through the fecal-oral route, when you consume food or water that's contaminated.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), sick food handlers are the main source of foodborne norovirus outbreaks in the U.S.6 That's multiple foodborne illness outbreaks in a matter of months at Chipotle, arguably one of the best fast-food chains in the U.S.

Steve Ells, Chipotle's founder and co-CEO, has said he's dedicated to making the restaurant's food safe again,7 but if it's happening at the best, imagine what's happening at the worst.

They still haven't found the origins of the illnesses, and really any mass food chain is vulnerable to contaminated food, as is anyone who eats there.

Superbug Resistant to ALL Antibiotics Linked to Imported Meat

If you come down with a foodborne illness like that caused by E.coli bacteria, you'll probably ride it out at home and be able to recover on your own. In severe cases, however, antibiotics can be a life-saving form of treatment – assuming the pathogen responds.

In a growing number of cases, bacteria are becoming resistant to available antibiotics. As noted by Forbes, "With the recent Chipotle E.coli outbreak, it's not hard to imagine the nightmare scenario of a foodborne outbreak from one of these new, highly resistant strains."8

Yet, alarmingly, researchers recently discovered a gene, called mcr-1, in pigs and people in China — a gene mutation that makes bacteria resistant to a last-resort antibiotic called colistin.9,10 The resistance has "epidemic potential," as the rate of transfer between bacteria is exceptionally high.

The mcr-1 gene has since been found in Malaysia and Portugal, and now it's also been found in five poultry samples in Denmark that were imported from Germany from 2012 to 2014. The gene was also detected in the blood of a Danish patient in 2015.11

According to Forbes, "The patient had not left the country and was believed to have become infected by eating contaminated meat. The genes found in the poultry were identical to those from the Danish patient and from China."12

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MCR-1 Seems to Be Spreading Fast

Journalist Maryn McKenna also reported on December 15, 2015 that researchers have discovered another patient who appears to be infected with a similarly resistant bacteria. And she continued in a blog for National Geographic:13

" … Public Health England has announced that it has found the gene in 15 stored bacterial samples in its databases: 10 Salmonella bacteria and three E. coli that came from hospitalized patients, and two Salmonella on a single sample of imported poultry meat.

… On Dec. 17, Dutch authorities announced they too had identified MCR-1 in a bacterial collection in the Netherlands.

The Central Veterinary Institute, housed at Wageningen University, said it found three bacterial isolates containing the MCR-1 gene in a collection of 3,274 Salmonella strains from 2014 and 2015.

Two similar strains came from chicken meat that originated in the Netherlands, and a different strain from imported turkey. (It does not give the source of the turkey.) They are now undertaking a broader search through other bacterial collections."

While colistin has not been used much in human medicine in recent decades, it is widely used in China's agriculture industry. This heavy use may have triggered the acquisition of mcr-1 by E. coli and other bacteria.14

Antibiotic-resistance experts from around the world are now keeping an eye out for mcr-1, particularly as it's being increasingly found in different strains of bacteria, which shows it may easily move among bacteria.

Lance Price, PhD is a pioneer in the use of genomic epidemiology to understand how the use of antibiotics in food animals can affect public health.

As a member of the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center at George Washington University, said in National Geographic, "It's real world, empiric evidence that this thing can spread very widely," he said. "It's almost like it possesses a universal key."15

Millions of Pounds of Manure Could Be Threatening Americans' Health

Animals at U.S. concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) produce 335 million tons of manure annually in dry weight. Comparatively, U.S. humans produce 7 million tons of fecal material each year (dry weight).

If the liquid fraction and waste from smaller farms is included, animals raised for food produce 2 billion tons of manure each year in the U.S.16 Manure used to be a non-issue on farms, as it was simply spread around fields as fertilizer.

But, as the size of farms have increased, so too has the problem of what to do with the manure produced by thousands of animals housed in one relatively small location.

It's far too much to use as fertilizer, even if it's spread among nearby farms, and so it's often pumped into "lagoons" that are supposed to be secure, but which inevitably leak into the surrounding environment.

There are many health problems associated with this practice, but one that is only beginning to receive due attention is antibiotic-resistant superbugs.

How Modern-Day Agriculture Is Spreading Antibiotic-Resistant Disease

Agriculture accounts for 80 percent of the antibiotics used in the U.S. Nearly 25 million pounds of antibiotics are administered to livestock in the U.S. every year for purposes other than treating disease, such as making the animals grow bigger faster.

When animals are fed low doses of antibiotics on a daily basis, it disrupts their natural microbiome, allowing stronger, more antibiotic-resistant bacteria to survive, multiply, and pass on their strength and resistance to future generations.

There's little doubt that agricultural use of antibiotics for non-medical use is one, if not the primary driver of antibiotic-resistant disease. Research published in mBio found 80 different antibiotic-resistant genes in five manure samples.17

Researchers still do not know the impact such genes might have for human health, but there are disturbing implications. When the researchers added these genes to a laboratory strain of the E.coli bacteria, it became resistant to four different antibiotics normally used to treat the infection.

The drug-resistant bacteria that contaminate your meat may also pass on their resistant genes to other bacteria in your body, making you more likely to become sick. Drug-resistant bacteria also accumulate in manure that is spread on fields and enters waterways, allowing the drug-resistant bacteria to spread far and wide and ultimately back up the food chain to us.

You can see how easily antibiotic resistance spreads, via the food you eat and community contact, in the CDC's infographic below.

How Antibiotic Resistance Spreads
Source:, Antibiotic Resistance Threats in the United States, 2013

How to Lower Your Risk of Foodborne Illness

Each year in the U.S., foodborne diseases cause 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths.18 And according to the Interagency Food Safety Analytics Collaboration (IFSAC), certain foods cause so many illnesses each year that shopping at your supermarket is like playing a game of Russian roulette.19

It's possible to get sick from eating just about anything – a cheeseburger, a bowl of salad, or a slice of cantaloupe, for instance.

Food safety is, I believe, just one of many reasons to opt for locally produced foods rather than CAFO brands sold in grocery stores. Besides safety, organic, grass-fed, and finished meat, raised without antibiotics and other growth-promoting drugs is really the only type of meat that is healthy to eat, in my view.

Growing your own food is your best option, but if that's not possible, the following organizations can help you locate healthy farm-fresh foods in your local area that have been raised in a humane, sustainable and likely safer manner:

  • Local Harvest – This website will help you find farmers' markets, family farms, and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area where you can buy produce, grass-fed meats, and many other goodies.
  • Eat Wild – With more than 1,400 pasture-based farms, Eatwild's Directory of Farms is one of the most comprehensive sources for grass-fed meat and dairy products in the United States and Canada.
  • Farmers' Markets – A national listing of farmers' markets.
  • Eat Well Guide: Wherever You Are, Eat Well – The Guide is a free online directory of more than 25,000 restaurants, farms, stores, farmers' markets, CSAs, and other sources of local, sustainably produced food throughout the U.S.
  • FoodRoutes – The FoodRoutes "Find Good Food" map can help you connect with local farmers to find the freshest, tastiest food possible. On their interactive map, you can find a listing for local farmers, CSAs, and markets near you.

Aside from growing your own food or purchasing it from high-quality, small-scale sources, one of the best ways to protect yourself from a foodborne infection is to strengthen your immune system. This is ideally done through daily lifestyle choices that support your overall health, such as:

Avoiding sugar – especially fructose – grains, and processed food, and eating plenty of organic raw foods Getting adequate restorative sleep
Finding a way to diffuse the stress life throws at you (my favorite tool is EFT) Incorporating regular exercise and non-exercise movement into your day
Optimizing your vitamin D through sun exposure, a high-quality tanning bed, or supplementation, if needed Eating fermented foods or taking a high-quality probiotic, which will help populate your gastrointestinal tract with beneficial bacteria — crucial for a healthy immune system and defense against bad bacteria like salmonella20