“The Big 6” foodborne pathogens: Introduction

Introduction to a series highlighting the six most common and infectious foodborne illnesses.

According to the 2013 Food Code from the Food & Drug Administration, the cost of foodborne illness in terms of patient suffering, reduced productivity and medical bills is approximately $10-$83 billion annually. This affects 1 in 6 Americans and includes roughly 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. While these statistics seem discouraging, foodborne illness is preventable.

The FDA identifies the following methods to prevent foodborne illness:

  • Control cross contamination- Controlling cross contamination means avoiding contact between raw animal products and cooked foods or raw ready to eat foods. This includes use of separate cutting boards and knives when preparing these items or washing and sanitizing them when switching between animal products and produce.
  • Proper handwashing- Handwashing is the easiest and most important way to significantly reduce or prevent the spread of foodborne illness. Washing under hot water for a minimum of twenty seconds will reduce the number of germs on your hands.
  • Maintain a clean kitchen- Make sure to store food in closed containers to reduce the risk of spills or pests. Clean and sanitize all food contact surfaces regularly, especially after preparing food. One way to sanitize is to use unscented bleach labeled safe for food contact surfaces and dilute it with water to the concentration indicated on the label. Michigan State University Extension recommends verifying the concentration of a mixed bleach solution by using test kits and indicator strips found at most grocery or restaurant supply stores.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention lists over 250 foodborne diseases caused by various bacteria, viruses, and parasites. Most people assume that food poisoning is caused by the last thing eaten, but bacteria and viruses can take a couple hours to six weeks before symptoms occur, depending on the type. Some, like Hepatitis A, can have an onset time as long as 50 days after eating while others, like Norovirus, have an onset time of 12-48 hours. They list “The Big 6” pathogens (Norovirus, Nontyphoidal Salmonella, Salmonella Typhi, E. coli, Shigella, and Hepatitis A) as being highly infectious, able to cause severe disease in small quantities, and each will be featured individually in this series of articles. The focus for each foodborne illness will be on background, symptoms, duration, common sources and prevention.

While the FDA acknowledges that the majority of individuals with foodborne illness will experience milder symptoms, youth under 5, older adults, and those with weakened immune systems are at the greatest risk for serious health outcomes. Increased knowledge around these six pathogens may help reduce fear associated with foodborne illness while providing education on how to reduce the instance of and prevent several infectious foodborne illnesses.

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