A third of U.S. adults have suffered food poisoning

Source: Scripps Howard News Service
Date: November 30, 2006

About a third of America's adults have suffered from food illnesses like Salmonella, Botulism and E. coli at least once in their lives.

A national survey of 1,031 adults by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University found that among those who've gotten ill from something they ate, slightly more than half say they've contracted food illness more than once, a third say the illness was serious enough to cause them to visit a doctor and one in eight said they were hospitalized.

People who've experienced food-borne disease are much less trusting that their state and local health departments will keep them safe from contaminated foods than are people who've never gotten sick, the survey found.

"I got Salmonella about 15 years ago and I went to the hospital. I'll never forget it. My kidneys shut down. They really didn't think I was going to live," recalled poll participant Brynton Gibson, 65, of Springfield, Ohio.

"The health department never did come out to talk to me. They said I was an isolated case," Gibson said. "Just look at all of the food recalls we have these days. ... These problems really should be caught at the warehouses and meatpacking places."

Gibson's criticisms are part of a broader pattern, the survey found.

People in the poll were asked, "As best you know, have you ever had food poisoning so that you became very ill because of something you ate?" Thirty-four percent answered "yes."

They were also asked, "Do you think state and local health departments do a good job or not so good a job when it comes to detecting food illnesses and finding the source of food illnesses?" Sixty-three percent of people who've never had food illness said they believe health departments do a good job, 24 percent said they are not so good, and 13 percent were undecided.

But confidence in health departments drops to 56 percent among people who went to the doctor because of food illness, and erodes further to 49 percent among people who were hospitalized.

Only 22 percent of people who've contracted food illness just once said the health departments are "not so good." But the number rises to 30 percent among people who've been sick twice and 48 percent among people who've been sick three times.

"It certainly makes sense that we'd see this kind of pattern. People don't totally give up on the system, but they start to have doubts," said sociologist Andrew Knight of the Food Safety Policy Center at Michigan State University.

Knight conducted a similar survey last year and found that 81 percent of people who've not had food poisoning recently believe the federal agencies like the Food and Drug Administration do a "very good job" or "good job" of "making sure the foods you eat are safe." But only 58 percent of people who'd suffered food poisoning said the same.

The number who said the federal government does a poor job was only 14 percent among people who've not gotten sick, but jumped to 40 percent among people who have been sick, Knight said.

"Clearly, there's a shift in perception of the capability (of government) when people have had a food-borne illness," said Knight.

Some participants in the Scripps survey said they are changing their eating habits because they don't trust health inspectors to keep them safe.

"They (health departments) don't test the actual food that's being served, especially in fast-food restaurants," said Cindy Spicer, 42, of Charleston, S.C. "That's why I don't eat out a lot."

Spicer said she made the change after suffering food illness three times.

James Johnson, 33, of Baton Rouge, La., said he also has stopped patronizing some of the nation's best-known fast-food chains.

"A while back my boss and I went into a hamburger joint. We saw one woman working there with what looked like throw-up on her blouse. It had to be vomit. And we saw a guy who'd just taken trash to the dumpster, came back inside and started making burgers without washing his hands or nothing," Johnson said. "That's when we decided to get out of there."

Johnson has gotten food poisoning twice. "I really don't go to fast-food places anymore," he said.

The survey found that 72 percent of people who've gotten ill report they were sickened by food purchased in restaurants, 13 percent said it was from food cooked at home and 11 percent said they got ill at other locations, such as food served at a friend's home or at work. Four percent were uncertain.

According to a Scripps Howard News Service study of 6,374 food-illness outbreak reports collected by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 51 percent of all outbreaks resulted from food served in restaurants, 16 percent from food prepared at home and the rest from a variety of locations like church picnics, school cafeterias, workplace buffets and prisons.

The Scripps survey found the public is divided over whether "food sold in grocery stores and at restaurants is safer than it used to be." Forty-three percent said they think food generally has gotten safer, 40 percent said it hasn't and 17 percent were undecided or gave alternative responses such as "it depends" on matters like geography or specific stores.

The survey was conducted Oct. 7-24 at the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University. It was sponsored through a grant from the Scripps Howard Foundation.

The survey generally has a margin of error of 4 percentage points, although the possibility of error rises among smaller subgroups, such as attitudes of people who've been hospitalized by food illnesses.