The Dangers in Our Food Supply Are Worse Than You Think

Food-borne illnesses are escalating in the United States, and it’s not because of a few unwashed spinach leaves. Foul conditions, lax regulations, and too few inspectors are threatening our safety.

peanut butter jar
Lucas Zarebinski for Reader’s Digest, Jon Valk for Reader’s Digest

All his life, Paul Schwarz had been active and healthy. When his family imagined the various ways that the decorated veteran of World War II might eventually die, they never imagined that the cause would be a piece of cantaloupe.

On Tuesday, September 13, 2011, Schwarz, 92, complained to his daughter Janice of abdominal pains and a slight fever. She took him to his doctor, who said it was likely the stomach flu. By Thursday, the symptoms had worsened, and Schwarz had developed diarrhea. Janice took him to the ER. Again, flu was the diagnosis, and he was sent home. For a few days, he improved. He called his son, also named Paul, that Sunday and cheerfully assured him that he’d eaten a big breakfast and felt a lot better.

But on Monday morning, the younger Paul received an urgent phone call. His father, unable to move his legs, had been rushed to the hospital. In the coming weeks, Schwarz’s behavior grew erratic, and he began thrashing in his bed and behaving like a drunk. Within a month, he no longer recognized his son. On December 18, he passed away.

By then, the doctors had determined that he was suffering from invasive listeriosis, an infection caused by Listeria monocytogenes, a bacterium transmitted by eating contaminated meat, dairy products, or produce. The pathogen can lead to bacterial meningitis, an infection of the covering of the brain and spinal cord, which may cause headaches, confusion, and convulsions. It kills about one in six of those infected. Children, the elderly, people with depressed immune systems, and pregnant women are most vulnerable. Schwarz had contracted listeriosis from eating contaminated cantaloupe in a fruit bowl he’d ordered at a restaurant that he visited after Mass each week.

Schwarz was but one of more than 100 patients suffering similar symptoms at the same time in 28 states. Eventually, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) would attribute 147 illnesses, 37 deaths, and one miscarriage to the listeria, making it the most lethal outbreak of food-borne illness in the United States since 1924. While the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) oversees food safety for most meat and poultry products, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is charged with keeping the rest of our food supply safe. And for the Schwarz family, the FDA had clearly dropped the ball.

The 2011 listeria outbreak was not an isolated case. The United States is experiencing what amounts to an epidemic of food-borne illnesses. According to the CDC, there are about 48 million cases of food poisoning a year, leading to more than 128,000 hospitalizations and more than 3,000 deaths. E. coli in spinach and fruit juice, salmonella in eggs and jalapeño peppers, listeria in cheese and bagged lettuce: The toll from food-borne bacteria is mind-numbing.

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