Lesser-known complications of food-borne illnesses include arthritis, kidney failure or temporary paralysis

Everyone knows that food poisoning from undercooked meat or poultry can result in unsavory symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, headaches, and stomach aches. For most victims, those symptoms subside within a matter of days. But for some, according to the cover story in the forthcoming May issue of Nutrition Action Healthletterfood poisoning casts a long, life-threatening shadow, characterized by kidney failure, chronic illnesses like reactive arthritis, or the frightening temporary paralysis of Guillain-Barré syndrome. Some of those afflicted are never the same again. And some die.

     “The first signs of these more serious symptoms follow days or even weeks after the more common initial symptoms of food poisoning,” says David Schardt, senior nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and the author of the article. “Unfortunately, once one is infected with Salmonella,Campylobacter, or E. Coli O157:H7, there’s nothing that can be done to reduce the likelihood of the worst-case scenarios: They either happen or they don’t.”

     Those worst-case scenarios include:

  • Guillain-Barré Syndrome: Striking between 3,000 and 6,000 people a year in the U.S., GBS starts as a tingling sensation in arms and legs and progresses within days to full paralysis, often lasting months. Scientists have learned thatCampylobacter, the bacterium that is present on 70 percent of supermarket chickens, is emerging as a leading cause of GBS. GBS eventually kills between five and 10 percent of its victims.
  • Reactive arthritis: The worse the initial food-poisoning symptoms are, the greater the likelihood of contracting reactive arthritis. A recent study of a Salmonella outbreak found that as many as one in five victims came down with this painful and potentially debilitating joint inflammation, which can last years—or a lifetime.
  • Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome: Tragically, 90 percent of the cases of this E. Coli O157:H7-induced syndrome occur in children under the age of three. By the time it first manifests itself in the form of bloody diarrhea, it’s often too late to prevent kidney failure. Even HUS survivors may have lifelong complications. Contaminated ground beef is the primary source of E. Coli O157:H7 infections, though not the only one. Contaminated lettuce or unpasteurized juice, cider, or milk can also carry the pathogen.

     New statistics from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) indicate that during the last five years, advances in meat inspection and improved meat industry practices have resulted in declining rates of food-borne illnesses. But food-safety experts are concerned that the Bush Administration’s rollback of those inspection gains will send food-borne illness rates back up.

     In the meantime, says Schardt, consumers can take some steps at the grocery store and in the kitchen to help reduce the risk of food-borne disease. Some of those steps are common sense—like making sure juices from raw meat or poultry don’t drip on fresh foods in your grocery cart, cooking meats thoroughly, and keeping hot foods hot and cold foods cold. But parents should also make sure their kids don’t eat raw cookie dough if it’s made with eggs—and be sure to give kitchen sponges a turn in the dishwasher along with plastic cutting boards.

     “Most consumers have no idea exactly how devastating the long-term consequences of food poisoning can be,” Schardt says. “And while we need to do everything we can to make sure contaminated products aren’t on the shelves in the first place, families can at least take care to minimize the risks at home.”

Note: For an advance copy of Food Poisoning’s Long Shadow—and an accompanying sidebar with household food-safety tips—or to interview author David Schardt, contact Stephanie Grasmick at (202) 777-8316.