Despite sweeping reform of food safety laws intended to make what we eat less dangerous, the number of Americans falling ill or dying from contaminated food has increased 44% in the past two years alone, according to a recent report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
Approximately 48 million people get sick from eating tainted food each year. According to estimates by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service, 49 of the 251 meat, poultry and processed egg product recalls occurring between 2007 and 2010 would have been prevented if the agency's new inspection policy - which will go into effect in early 2012 - had been in place.
What consumers are up against:
-- Fast facts on salmonella
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that people in a normal state of health who ingest Salmonella-tainted food may experience diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps, which typically begin within 12 to 72 hours. This may be accompanied by vomiting, chills, headache and muscle pains. These symptoms may last about four to seven days, and then go away without specific treatment, but left unchecked, Salmonella infection may spread to the bloodstream and beyond and may cause death if the person is not treated promptly with antibiotics.
Children, the elderly, and people with compromised immune symptoms should practice extreme caution, as salmonellosis may lead to severe illness or even death.
-- Fast facts on listeria
According to the Food and Drug Administration, listeria is an organism that can cause foodborne illness. Symptoms of infection may include fever, muscle aches, gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea or diarrhea. Pregnant women and adults with weakened immune systems are at the greatest risk and most healthy adults and children rarely become seriously ill.
-- Fast facts on E. coli
According to the FSIS, E. coli is a potentially deadly bacterium that can cause bloody diarrhea, dehydration, and in the most severe cases, kidney failure. The very young, seniors and persons with weak immune systems are the most susceptible to foodborne illness.
-- Fast facts on mad cow disease:
Eating contaminated meat or some other animal products from cattle that have bovine spongiform encephalopathy is thought to be the cause of the fatal brain disease in humans that is called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
The fatal disease was blamed for the deaths of 150 people in Britain, where there was an outbreak in the 1980s and 1990s.
In people, symptoms of the disease include psychiatric and behavioral changes, movement deficits, memory disturbances and cognitive impairments.
BSE can cause infected animals to display nervousness or aggression, difficulty in coordination and standing up, decreased milk production or loss of body weight, according to the agency.
It is usually transmitted between cows through the practice of recycling bovine carcasses for meat and bone meal protein, which is fed to other cattle.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the odds of a person contracting mad cow disease, even after consuming contaminated products, are less than one in 10 billion.
Unlike most other meat-borne illnesses, such as those caused by E.-coli bacteria, cooking does not kill the infectious agent that causes mad cow disease.
Consumers who wish to exercise extra caution can follow the advice presented by the Web-based consumer advocacy group Consumeraffairs.com, which advises the avoidance of brains, neck bones and beef cheeks, bone marrow and cuts of beef that are sold on the bone. The group also says to choose boneless cuts of meat and ground beef only if it has been ground in the store.
Last year, 29 cases of BSE were reported worldwide, down 99% since the peak of 37,311 cases in 1992.