If a company manufactures, sells or serves food products in the United States, a food contamination event can be an imminent threat to the business. Foodborne illness, or food poisoning affects about one in six Americans, or 48 million, every year. The CDC estimates that of these cases, there are 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths annually. These pathogens can get into your food through:1

  • Improper food handling
  • Unsafe practices on farms
  • Contamination during manufacturing or distributing
  • Contamination in stores

Incidents of food contamination are common and food can be contaminated with bacteria, viruses, parasites, or chemicals. The types of pathogens causing foodborne illnesses in the U.S. are:

  • Salmonella
  • E. coli
  • Botulism
  • Listeria
  • Hepatitis A


Salmonella is the most common known cause of hospitalization in the United States with over 19,000 cases per year. Most people recover from Salmonella infection within four to seven days. 

The most noted outbreaks in the U.S. include:

  • 2009: Peanut butter, Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), 714 illnesses, 9 deaths 3,600 products recalled, company is now defunct
  • 2011: Ground turkey, Cargill, recalled 36 million pounds, 136 illnesses and 1 death across 34 states
  • 2013:  Chicken, Foster Farms, 634 illnesses across 29 states and Puerto Rico
  • 2015: Mexican cucumbers, Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce (distributor), infected 907 people in 40 states, 200 hospitalized and 6 deaths

E. coli

E. coli bacteria normally lives in the intestines of animals and humans, however, the infections from certain strains of this bacteria can sicken humans. The strain often associated with outbreaks produces a toxin so strong that antibiotics are ineffective.

The most noted outbreaks in the U.S. include:

  • 2006: Baby spinach, Dole, 205 illnesses in 26 states, 31 suffered kidney failure, and 3 deaths
  • 2006: Lettuce, Taco Bell, 71 illnesses in 5 states, 8 suffered kidney failure, 53 were hospitalized
  • 2015: Chipotle Mexican Grill, 55 illnesses in 11 states and 22 hospitalizations


Botulism poisoning is a rare but very serious illness that transmits through food, contact with contaminated soil, or through an open wound. According to the CDC, about 145 cases of botulism are reported in the U.S. every year and about three to four percent die. Without early treatment, botulism can lead to paralysis, breathing difficulties and death. There are three types—infant botulism, foodborne botulism, and wound botulism.

Botulism poisoning is due to a toxin produced by a type of bacteria called Clostridium botulinum. These bacteria can only thrive in conditions where there’s no oxygen. Certain food sources, such as home-canned foods provide the perfect breeding ground.

The most noted outbreaks in the U.S. include:

  • 1977: Hot sauce, Trini & Carmen’s Mexican restaurant in Pontiac, Michigan, 58 illnesses
  • 2015: Home-canned potatoes (improperly canned), church potluck, Fairfield County, OH, 29 illnesses


While listeriosis, the disease caused by the bacteria Listeria, is less common than some other kinds of food-borne illness and the numbers of people affected are much smaller in the U.S., it’s by far the most deadly 2 and can threaten even the strongest company brands. It’s usually caused by eating food contaminated with the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes.

In the U.S. alone, the CDC estimates that 1,600 people are infected by listeriosis each year and about 260 die. Those who are most vulnerable are pregnant women and their newborns, adults 65 and older, and people with weakened immune systems. Actually, pregnant women are 10 times more likely to be infected. Compared to other foodborne illnesses, listeriosis is rare but very serious. Even with adequate antibiotic treatment, the disease has a high mortality rate of 20 to 30 percent. About 94 percent of people with listeriosis are hospitalized, or about 1,200, often in intensive care.

L. Monocytogenes is widespread in the environment, especially in soil and water. The bacteria can survive in soil for many months. Animals, particularly cattle, can carry L. monocytogenes without appearing sick and shed the bacteria in their feces. Listeria can also tolerate many conditions, acidic and salty, high (frozen) and low temperatures, and fairly low moisture content. Because of its resilience, the bacteria can survive a long time in a variety of food products and food processing plants—multiplying and persisting in plants for years.3

People become infected with L. monocytogenes by eating contaminated food or by handling contaminated food, or touching contaminated surfaces and utensils and then accidentally transferring the bacteria from their hands to their mouths. Outbreaks have been linked to raw, unpasteurized milks and cheeses, ice cream, raw or processed fruits and vegetables, raw or undercooked poultry, sausage, hot dogs, deli meats, and raw or smoked fish and other seafood. It’s even been found in raw pet food.

The most noted outbreaks in the U.S., include:

  • 1985: Jalisco Mexican Products’ cheese (caused by unpasteurized milk), 142 illnesses in Los Angeles County, 10 newborn deaths and 18 adults, 20 miscarriages
  • 1998: Hot dogs, deli meat (affected over nine brands), 100 illnesses in 24 states, 14 deaths and four miscarriages
  • 2002: Turkey meat, Pilgrim’s Pride, 8 states, seven deaths and 3 stillbirths
  • 2011: Cantaloupes, Jensen Farms’ packing facility, Holly, Colorado, 147 illnesses, 33 deaths

Hepatitis A

Hepatitis refers to inflammation of the liver caused by exposure to toxins, alcohol misuse, immune disease or infection. Hepatitis A is a type of hepatitis that results from infection by the hepatitis A virus (HAV). According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 1.4 million cases of hepatitis A occur around the world each year. It’s generally not serious and usually causes no long-term effects. There is no specific treatment for hepatitis A—it usually goes away on its own.

HAV is typically transmitted by ingesting food or liquid contaminated with fecal matter that contains the virus. Once transmitted, the virus spreads through the bloodstream to the liver where it causes inflammation and swelling. HAV is contagious and can also be spread by close personal contact with an infected person.

The most noted outbreaks in the U.S. include:

  • 1997: Frozen strawberries, Calhoun County, Michigan, 153 illnesses in 6 states from federal school lunches
  • 2003: Salsa and chili con queso (that included imported green onions from Mexico), Chi-Chi’s, Monaca, Pennsylvania, 555 illnesses, 3 deaths
  • 2016: Smoothies (imported strawberries from Egypt), Tropical Smoothie Café, 143 illnesses, 56 hospitalizations

Food and beverage brands must be prepared. The threat is real and the stakes are high. Here are some great ways a company can prepare for a food contamination event:

  1. Perform a risk assessment in order to fully understand the 1st and 3rd party exposure
  2. Implement a recall plan as part of an overall crisis management strategy and update it regularly
  3. Evaluate and audit suppliers
  4. Continuously monitor and assess quality control and HACCP procedures
  5. Remain informed of changing regulatory requirements
  6. Maintain product traceability measures
  7. Conduct mock recalls
  8. Purchase insurance for balance sheet protection


  1. Estimates of Foodborne Illness in the United States”, CDC
  2. Melanie Haiken, “The 5 Deadliest Food-Borne Illnesses and How to Prevent Them”, Forbes, Sept. 28, 2011
  3. Get the Facts About Listeria”, FDA
  4. Listeria”, CDC

Disclaimer: Berkley Global Product Recall is pleased to share this material with its customers. Please note, however, that nothing in this document should be construed as legal advice or the provision of professional consulting services. This material is for general informational purposes only, and while reasonable care has been utilized in compiling this information, no warranty or representation is made as to accuracy or completeness.