Food-borne illness is not uncommon in the United States and has significant economic impact. Food contamination causes 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths every year, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study published in 1999. The majority of deaths occur owing to unidentified agents, but 1,500 deaths per year can be attributed to Listeria, Salmonella, and Toxoplasma species (Mead et al., 1999). More than 200 different diseases may be transmitted in contaminated food, including ailments caused by bacteria, viruses, parasites, prions, bacterial toxins, and metals.
The impact of outbreaks owing to food contamination can potentially be severe. In 1951 in the French village of Pont-St.-Esprit, hundreds of villagers ate bread baked that morning from flour contaminated with ergot. The mold-infested flour caused villagers and pets fed bread scraps to hallucinate, the equivalent of a lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) "trip." The incident caused widespread panic and many deaths, often self-inflicted as a consequence of the toxin ingestion (Fuller, 1968).
In 1994, truckers hauling ice cream premix in improperly sanitized tanker trucks, which previously held raw egg, exposed more than 220,000 people to salmonella poisoning. It was the largest single salmonella poisoning outbreak ever recorded in the United States (Hennessy et al., 1996). Although this event was a case of negligence, criminals could arrange this type of event with little trouble.
An intentional contamination might have even greater impact. Wein and Liu (2005) modeled the outcome of an intentional contamination of a milk processing facility with less than 1 gram of botulinum toxin. This model estimated that 100,000 casualties could ensue. Although some scientists have disputed the degree of vulnerability in the case of botulinum toxin, an intentional contamination of modern food distribution channels is possible.
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