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ABC 33/40 News Investigates: How safe is your food?

The Centers for Disease Control estimates foodborne illnesses causes 48 million people to get sick, send 128,000 people to the hospital and kill 3,000 people in the U.S. on an annual basis. In Alabama, there have been 273 foodborne illness outbreaks since 1998.

Each year, millions of people get sick and thousands die from foodborne illnesses. There's also been a rash of food product recalls lately.

The Centers for Disease Control estimates foodborne illnesses causes 48 million people to get sick, send 128,000 people to the hospital and kill 3,000 people in the U.S. on an annual basis. In Alabama, there have been 273 foodborne illness outbreaks since 1998.

ABC 33/40 News Investigates spoke with two victims whose lives changed dramatically, all because of the food they ate.

Roy Williams spent seven days in the hospital for treatment of salmonella poisoning after he ate chicken at a fast food restaurant. He threw up so violently that he tore his esophagus.

"This was a pain on a threshold of nine or 10. Pain like I'd never had in my life," Williams said.

A salmonella infection is usually caused by eating raw or undercooked poultry, ground beef or egg products. In fact, the CDC says salmonella causes more than a million illnesses and 450 deaths a year.

Stephanie Bartilucci, an ultrasound technologist, was pregnant with her son Michael when she said she ate a salad from a New York health food store that was contaminated with listeria. Her son died just two days after being born.

"It was the worst, worst thing in the world," Bartilucci said. "And it was my first baby. Here I thought I knew everything and it was terrible."

Listeria can be found in uncooked vegetables, ready-to-eat hot dogs and deli meats and unpasteurized cheeses. And unlike other bacteria, Listeria can grow and multiply in the cold temperature of your refrigerator.

The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says pregnant women are 13 times more likely to get listeriosis than others. The American Pregnancy Association says listeriosis can result in premature delivery, miscarriage, or in 22 percent of the cases, death to a newborn child.

"It's the fact that this bacteria lives inside of the cells of the body and it's able to escape the normal immune response that we expect during an infection," said Dr. Joseph Biggio, a UAB Maternal-Fetal Medicine specialist.

In 2011, President Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act into law, key components of which are kicking in now. It's designed to ensure that the U.S. food supply is made safer by shifting the focus of federal regulators from contamination response to prevention.

"All the rules are being finalized. It will make a difference," Stop Foodborne Illness CEO Deidre Schlunegger said. "It certainly will make a difference."

Still, the leading cause of foodborne illness in this country is actually the norovirus, which causes diarrhea and vomiting.

The CDC says most norovirus food contamination outbreaks occur in restaurants. That's why cleanliness is so important in the places where we eat. And as gross as it sounds, that's also why it's so critical for food workers to wash their hands thoroughly after using the restroom.

"You have a viable virus that can be found in the feces, potentially in the food preparer, in their hands if they don't wash their hands and they prepare food then your food can be contaminated," UAB Infectious Disease Specialist Dr. Bernard Camins said.

You can find the cleanest restaurants by checking out inspection scores on county health department websites. Click here for a full list of county health websites.

The procedures that the cleanest restaurants follow are the same rules that you should follow at home:

  • Wash hands for at least 20 seconds, especially before you handle food.
  • Don't cross-contaminate raw food and cooked food.
  • Keep cutting boards clean by washing them in hot soapy water after each use.
  • Refrigerate food promptly.
  • Be sure to cook food at proper temperatures.

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