5 Infamous Food Poisoning Cases in History

Food poisoning is a serious issue that affects millions of people around the world each year.
March 15, 2016

Food poisoning is a serious issue that affects millions of people around the world each year. 

Throughout history, there have been countless outbreaks of food poisoning, many of which have had devastating consequences.

Whether caused by accident, negligence or even on purpose, food poisoning betrays the trust of those consuming a product and has the ability to cause serious illness and death.

All food organisations and food handlers must practise responsible and careful food safety so as to lower the risk of causing illness or injury. If the proper level of food safety is not maintained, horrible consequences can be the result.

Mad Cow Disease

‘Mad Cow Disease’ (MCD), officially called Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, is the cause of one of the most infamous cases of food poisoning throughout history.

MCD is transferred to humans who consume food contaminated by an infected cow. In humans, it’s called Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD) and is an incurable and ultimately fatal brain disease.

In 1996, the first variant case of CJD was reported in the UK, which was linked to the death the previous year of 19-year-old Stephen Churchill. As of 2012, CJD has been responsible for the tragic deaths of 176 people in the UK and 49 people elsewhere in the world.

Although the first cow in the UK reportedly died from MCD in early 1985, it wasn’t until late 1986 that authorities began to realise the size of the problem. MCD is reported to have killed approximately 179,000 cattle in the UK, with another 4.4 million destroyed as a precaution.

Many countries banned importing British beef on the grounds that it wasn’t safe. Since the outbreak, other provisions have been put in place to prevent further cases from occurring.

Mad Cow Disease had far-reaching results, both in the UK and abroad. It changed the way UK surgery and blood donations were carried out, as well as many of the UK’s farming laws. Despite these changes though, MCD still remains a persistent food safety concern.

Mad cow disease – a very British response to an international crisis

Mad Cow Disease Fast Facts

Jack in the Box

In 1993, 732 people were affected by one of the most notorious and tragic cases of food poisoning in US history. Jack in the Box, a fast-food hamburger chain, sold hamburgers with under-cooked beef patties that infected many customers with E. coli bacteria. The outbreak involved 73 restaurants across the US in the states of Idaho, Washington, Nevada and California.

Sadly, the under-cooked burger patties were responsible for the deaths of 4 children and the serious injury of 178 other victims, including permanent kidney and brain damage.

Following the 1993 Jack in the Box outbreak, the US has adopted a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to E. coli and infection rates have reportedly since lowered.

The man who took over the position after the outbreak to supervise the company’s food safety system, Dr Dave Theno said, “I can tell you that today, at major corporations, food safety is a topic that gets brought up at every board meeting.”

Jack in the Box and the Decline of E. coli

Bil Mar Foods

In the US in 1998, Bil Mar Foods, part of the Sara Lee Corporation, sold hot dogs and cold cut meats infected with listeria. It was reported that 100 people became ill, 21 people died and 6 women suffered miscarriages after consuming the contaminated food.

It was suggested that one reason the listeria outbreak had such awful consequences was that the purchased meats were probably not cooked to a safe temperature, if cooked at all, before consumption. Cooking the meats would most likely have destroyed the listeria bacteria responsible for the outbreak.

Although Bil Mar Foods voluntarily recalled potentially affected products, by 1999 the outbreak had reached horrendous proportions. Investigations into the cause of the contamination suggested that the destruction of a refrigeration unit in 1998 caused the listeria to spread throughout the meat processing facility.   

Bil Mar Foods Ready-to-eat Meals 1998

Bradford Sweets

The accidental food poisoning in 1858 of over 200 people in Bradford, England, in which 20 people are estimated to have died, is another tragic case. It was reported that peppermint humbugs, lollies that accidentally contained arsenic, were sold to the public from a market stall and caused the outbreak.

The accidental addition of arsenic to the sweets is reported because at the time sugar was extremely expensive and many people substituted it with something called ‘daft’ – a cheaper alternative with questionable ingredients. Apparently, rather than using daft to make the sweets, they were made with arsenic which was mistakenly sold to the lolly maker from a local pharmacist.

The poisoned sweets were later sold at the Green Market in Bradford and within a day or so, people began to get sick and sadly many died. Although the lolly maker, the pharmacist and the market stall owner all faced charges, none were ever convicted.

Public outcry resulting from the awful food poisoning case helped contribute to the Pharmacy Act 1868, implemented in the UK, which recognised that the chemist and druggist were the custodian and seller of named poisons.

The World's Biggest Food Poisoning Scares

Peanut Corporation of America

The Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) was the peanut-processing business found to be the source for the infamous 2008-2009 US salmonella outbreak.

The outbreak is reported to have affected at least 714 people across 46 US states and caused the deaths of 9 people. Approximately half of all people affected were children and it’s estimated that 23 per cent of ill people reported being hospitalised.

Extensive testing undertaken by various authorities found that the cause of the salmonella outbreak was the PCA’s Blakely, Georgia processing plant. The outbreak saw the biggest national recall in US history carried out when almost 4,000 different products were recalled.

Employees from various PCA processing-plants reportedly commented on the ‘disgusting’ state of their working environments, which included rodent infestations.

After being in business for over 30 years, during which the company had many food quality issues, in 2009 the PCA declared bankruptcy and the owner, Stewart Parnell and his brother were charged and convicted in 2014 for their part in the outbreak.

Multistate Outbreak of Salmonella Typhimurium