The Worst Food Safety Cases of All Time
We're not just talking bad eggs or rotten apples. These outbreaks are the worst of the bunch.
The life of a peanut company CEO isn't easy. There are investors to appease, employees to oversee, a business to run and big decisions to make. One bad move can be costly. Stewart Parnell, the former Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) owner, made a decision that cost him his livelihood and his freedom. Convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and wire fraud for his role in allowing a fatal food-borne illness outbreak, Parnell knowingly allowed a contaminated product to be passed on to food distributors. He is facing a possible life sentence first federal felony conviction of its kind related to food safety,
. Nine people died and more than 700 people in 46 states fell ill between 2008 and 2009 after consuming peanut butter tainted with
from Parnell's company. The PCA episode marked one of the worst food safety contamination in modern history, but the peanut company isn't alone in causing consumers harm through negligence or outright malice brought on by greed. Explore how rotten food contamination can get.
On May 1, 1981, eight-year-old Jaime Vaquero became the first victim in what would be the deadliest food-borne illness outbreak of any developed nation in the modern era. Around 700 people met the same fate as Vaquero,
, and over 20,000 got sick and survived, though many still dealt with the after-effects of the contamination years later as they were left disabled. The cause of the epidemic, however, is still a scientific mystery. The victims all suffered from what would be called toxic oil syndrome, a name created specifically for this epidemic. The source of the illness identified at the time was rapeseed oil, an industrial lubricant. Even though it was dyed and laced with aniline, a coal tar extract, to prevent it from being mistakenly ingested, some less-than-scrupulous entrepreneurs figured out a way to remove the dye and aniline, though some simply didn't bother, according to this theory. The oil merchants then peddled their product as cheap olive oil among Madrid's working class neighborhoods. That's how the official story goes anyhow. Although adulterated rapeseed oil is most commonly cited as the cause of the epidemic, members of the survivor and scientific communities have their doubts. Laboratory studies were unable to recreate the symptoms seen in the victims, and some alleged a cover-up. One of the leading competing theories is that toxic tomatoes led to organophosphate poisoning,
. Another conspiracy suggested a breach with biological weapons at a U.S. air base.
Over an eight-month period in 1985, 142 cases of
, a serious infection most often found in unpasteurized milk, deli meats and meat spreads among other sources, were identified in Los Angeles and Orange counties. The disease usually has a mortality rate of around 20 percent, with pregnant women, older adults and people with compromised immune systems most at risk. Because roughly two-thirds of the cases involved pregnant women, this outbreak was especially deadly, claiming 48 lives, including 20 fetuses, 10 neonates and 18 adults,
. The source of the contamination was traced to packages of Mexican-style soft cheese, queso fresco, produced by Jalisco Products, Inc., which then issued a massive recall. The company later faced criminal investigations and civil suits, and eventually closed their factory.
1985 was likely a difficult year for the public relations teams representing dairy farmers in the United States. Northern Illinois experienced a massive salmonella outbreak that affected between 168,000 and 197,000 people, one of the largest food contaminations in U.S. history,
, citing a study by the Journal of the American Medical Association. The strain of salmonella that caused the outbreak was resistant to many antibiotics, a result of farmers feeding dairy cows with antimicrobial drugs. People who were on antibiotics before drinking the milk, roughly 16 percent of those infected, experienced more severe symptoms than those who weren't. The use of antibiotics can wipe out healthy bacteria in humans, giving the salmonella strain a competitive advantage.
In 1986, one of Italy's wine producers debuted a vintage unlike any other produced that year. But don't expect the wine to be on the list of any fine dining establishment. The wine was tainted with exceptionally high levels of methanol. Although a byproduct of winemaking and harmless in small quantities, methanol is poisonous and can be fatal if consumed in excess. In an effort to boost the intoxicating effects of its product, one budget producer mixed methanol into their vino, which caused 24 deaths in Italy and led many more to fall ill,
. The scandal marked the second year in a row the wine industry came under scrutiny for putting chemical additives in their products. In 1985, Austrian producers came under fire after it was discovered they were adding antifreeze to their wines in order to make the wines taste sweeter.
Humans aren't the only ones affected by food contaminations. Pets suffer as well when food safety is neglected. Since 2007,
incidents of pet owners reporting that treats containing ingredients originating in China were negatively affecting their animals. Various products had traces of contaminated wheat gluten, corn gluten and rice protein, with multiple factories implicated. Thousands of dogs and cats fell ill and died as a result of consuming contaminated food, particularly jerky or rawhide treats. Pet food manufacturers initiated recalls, which affected thousands of products. Unlike other outbreaks in this list, the massive pet food recalls happened in multiple waves,
In 2008, China faced one of the largest food contamination scandals ever to affect any society's most vulnerable audience: infants. An estimated 300,000 newborns fell ill as a result of contaminated milk. Fifty-thousand required hospitalization for kidney stones, kidney damage and even kidney failure. Six babies died as a result. The infants fell sick because the milk powder that they were fed was intentionally diluted with melamime, a toxic industrial compound added to create the illusion of high protein content. The scandal received international attention, with at least 11 countries banning all dairy imports from China. Within China, the episode exposed corruption among political and food safety officials. Businessmen and government officials involved with passing the tainted milk off to consumers faced criminal convictions that resulted in long imprisonments
In 2008, one of the largest salmonella outbreaks in the United States in decades struck more 1,400 people living across 43 states and the District of Columbia,
. The majority of the victims resided in the Southwest, with Texas accounting for over a third of all reported cases. Jalapeño and serrano peppers originating from in the northeastern state of Nuevo Leon in Mexico, served in restaurants and sold by Wal-Mart and other retailers, turned out to be the culprit behind the outbreak. In the process of determining the source of the contamination, government officials also warned U.S. consumers to stay away from tomatoes,
"Sproutbreak" may sound like some kind of spring farming festival, but the term refers to an outbreak of disease of E. coli in bean sprouts. In 2011, an organic farm in northern Germany triggered one of the most widespread E. coli outbreaks in modern history, causing 53 deaths and nearly 4,000 people to fall ill. Initially, food safety officials,
, believed cucumbers from a farm in Spain were the culprit, until they were able to successfully identify the real cause of the outbreak. The bean sprouts were distributed across Europe and even made their way into North America. As consumers fell ill across the globe from tainted produce, Russia even went so far as to ban the import of all fresh vegetables from the European Union.
A staple of fruit salads and brunch buffets, cantaloupe was a melon you could count on until around 2011, when a Listeria outbreak led to the deaths of over 30 people and caused nearly 150 others to fall ill. The source of the outbreak was Jensen Farms, near Holly, Colo., a fourth-generation farm operated by two brothers. Listeria found its way into the cantaloupes after the operators changed their packaging procedures, removing an anti-microbial wash,
. Dirty equipment and pools of water were also found by investigators at the farm, all apparently missed by the privately contracted auditor, who gave the operation a glowing review. The brothers faced criminal prosecution, and were sentenced to five years' probation, six months of house arrest and 100 hours of community service. They were also ordered to pay $150,000 in restitution.
In a case that sparked national outrage in India and international sympathy, dozens of students, all 12 years old or younger, fell ill and 22 died after eating
at their school in the state of Bihar in 2013. The meal was provided to them by their school as part of a broader national effort to tackle malnourishment and boost attendance. The cause of the fatal illness was a container used for cooking oil, which had previously stored insecticides. The episode sparked protests, vandalism and even violence, and led to the arrests of the school's headmistress and her husband, who tried to evade authorities for months after the incident.