A Russian roulette of food poisoning in U.S.

A Russian roulette of food poisoning in U.S.
Scripps Howard News

More than 50,000 people got sick or died from something they ate in a hidden epidemic that went undiagnosed by the
nation’s public health departments over a five-year period.

Americans play a sort of food-poisoning Russian roulette depending on where they live, an investigation by Scripps
Howard News Service found. Slovenly restaurants, disease-infested food-processing plants and other sources of
infectious illness go undetected all over the country, but much more frequently in some states than others.

Scripps studied 6,374 food-related disease outbreaks reported by every state to the federal Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention from Jan. 1, 2000, through Dec. 31, 2004. The causes of nearly two-thirds of the outbreaks in
that period were officially listed as “unknown.”

In 2003, Ohio ranked third in the country with 259 food-related deaths, the study showed.

The findings translate into an alarming potential for tragedy.

If health officials are unable to connect illness to food, victims who might eat from the same poisoned source cannot be
warned. If food is known as the culprit, but the specific disease lurking within is not diagnosed, the victims may get even
sicker or die without proper treatment.

The poor track record of so many state labs also raises chilling questions about their ability to spot or deal with a food-
borne terrorist attack.

Families of children who got sick during the five-year period in the study tell heart-rending stories of heroic efforts they
made to convince the medical establishment they were victims of food illness.

“My daughter’s death would have been listed just as a ‘stroke’ and swept under the rug,” said Todd Nelson, a
Continental Airlines pilot and father of a 19-month-old girl who died of E. coli. “But I wanted to know what my daughter
really died of. And I wanted somebody to blame.”

The Nelson family believes Ana Leigh Nelson ate infected hamburger meat from a popular Minnesota restaurant in
2002. The family demanded further private tests that confirmed a rare strain of E. coli and then demanded that the
medical examiner change her death certificate to correctly report death from complications of food poisoning.

“We sort of fell through the cracks,” Nelson said.

The study found that Kentucky, Oklahoma and Nebraska are virtually blind to outbreaks of food sickness, rarely
detecting that scattered illnesses have common food causes. In Alabama, Florida and New Jersey, the cause of food
poisoning is almost never found, even when it is known that dozens or hundreds of people became violently ill or died
from something they ate, according to the Scripps study.

The CDC defines an “outbreak” as two or more people who got sick or died after eating the same food.