Foodborne illness outbreaks affect millions of people every year. In ordinary circumstances, food poisoning tends to be relatively minor, with symptoms ranging from mild nausea to a few days off work. But, every so often, something extremely serious comes along that can have significant consequences for a large percentage of the population.
Whether through natural causes or human error, these scandals have all taken a serious toll on the food industry. Almost invariably, crises are allowed to spread thanks to an inability to react quickly enough to clear and present danger. To anyone worried about food health and safety, these seven studies are a stern warning.
1. Chinese Milk Outrage
Powdered milk has long been a contentious topic, but the debate really came to a head in 2008. When children around the world became ill, it was discovered that milk made by the Chinese Sanlu company had become tainted with dangerous levels of industrial chemical melamine. The resulting outbreak killed at least six children around the world and affected as many as 300,000.
2. Mad Cow Disaster
In the early 1990s, Britain’s beef industry was beset by disaster as a result of bovine spongiform encephalopathy - commonly known as mad cow disease. Transmittable to humans who eat the flesh, the industry’s refusal to admit the scale of the problem saw more than 200 people killed across Britain and Europe, and led to a lengthy ban on British beef exports.
3. German Cucumber Calamity
In 2011, Europe was rocked by what would come to be recognised as the worst E. coli outbreak in its history. As debate raged over the source of the infection, the government blamed imported Spanish cucumbers. After millions of Euros and the deaths of around 50 people, it was discovered that German fenugreek sprouts were the actual cause.
4. Walkerton Incident
It’s not just food that can pose a risk. In the Canadian town of Walkerton, Ontario in 2000, over 2,500 residents fell ill after drinking what turned out to be water contaminated with E. coli. Seven people tragically lost their lives in the incident, after authorities only warned residents to boil their water 10 days after the initial outbreak.
5. Peanut Butter Tragedy
In 2015, an astonishing precedent was set when the CEO of the Peanut Corporation of America was sent to jail for his role in a 2008 salmonella scandal. It was revealed in court that Stuart Parnell had ordered the distribution of peanut butter that he knew might be infected with the bacteria. His failure to act appropriately led to the death of nine people.
6. Jalisco Cheese Catastrophe
In 1985, California was ravaged by the deadliest foodbourne illness outbreak in US history. A mixture of pasteurised and unpasteurised milk in the production of Jalisco cheese led to a mass listeria infection across the country. 52 people were confirmed to have died, including 19 stillbirths and 10 infant deaths.
7. South African Listeria Crisis
Despite the scale of the problems in California, they pale into comparison with South Africa’s ongoing listeria crisis. Caused by contaminated deli meats produced by Enterprise Foods, the disaster has already claimed the lives of around 180 people and is widely acknowledged to be the worst foodborne illness outbreak in global history.
Sometimes food poisoning can be unavoidable. Even if you take all necessary precautions, there’s no way to guarantee that you won’t stumble across something nasty in your dinner. However, as these examples show, the chances are that foodborne illness is a direct result of human error. All the more reason to take extra care with your food.