When Claudine Rad fell ill in June, she thought she'd come down with a severe case of the flu. Her doctor prescribed some medicine and told her to rest for a few days until she felt better. But when she returned to her new job, her symptoms worsened—to the point at which she was forced to drop out of her company's three-day training course. "My whole body ached, I had zero energy, and I was constantly in the bathroom," says Rad, 36. She had no idea what had hit her—until, while recuperating at home, she heard about an outbreak of hepatitis A linked to a particular frozen berry and pomegranate blend used to make smoothies.
"I had been on a health kick, drinking the smoothies a few times a week in the month before I got sick," says Rad, who lives in Mesa, Arizona. Turns out, she was one of at least 161 people across the country who had been sickened by the same blend and developed hep A, an acute infectious disease that can spread through contaminated food and impair liver function.
Food poisoning is nothing new. One undercooked chicken wing or bad piece of Brie could sideline anyone for a few days of intense nausea and stomach cramps. But there's been a rise in foodborne illnesses linked to imported food in the last several years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This year alone there's been the hep A outbreak that made Rad ill; the incident with Salmonella-infected cucumbers that sent 17 people to the hospital from January through April; and a recent parasitic infection (known as cyclosporiasis), linked to a bagged salad mix in many cases, that had sickened more than 645 people as of mid-September.
The CDC estimates there are about 48 million cases of foodborne illness every year, leading to roughly 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. Experts say one reason behind the outbreaks is the globalization of products and the vast quantities of food coming to our shores. From 1998 to 2007, food imports grew by $37 billion; today, roughly 15 percent of all food eaten in the U.S., including up to 90 percent of seafood and 60 percent of fresh produce, is shipped here. "Many of our most vulnerable commodities, including fruits and vegetables, come from countries with less vigorous inspection and food safety practices," says Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner Margaret Hamburg, MD. But according to a recent FDA budget report, barely two percent of imports are inspected once they reach the U.S.
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