July 14, 2024

How E. coli, Salmonella and Listeria Recalls Prevent Serious Illness

When Food Poisoning Bulletin began a review of food recalls in 2020, we discovered there had been a dramatic decline in the number of recalls for meat and poultry but not for other food products. To find out why, we looked at five years of recall data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA FSIS), the federal agency that regulates meat, poultry, and eggs. A decline in the number of recalls for bacterial contamination is concerning. To read our in-depth analysis, click here.

Bacterial Contamination in Meat is Serious

E. coli, Listeria and Salmonella are bacteria that cause typical food poisoning symptoms when they are ingested but each of them can also cause serious illness and death. That’s why companies that produce food are required to have plans in place that identify and control for the risk of bacterial contamination. These plans must include testing to make sure contaminated products don’t make their way to consumers.

E. coli

E. coli live in the intestines of people and animals. Meat can become contaminated with these bacteria during slaughter. E. coli O157:H7, the most commonly identified strain of E. coli, live in the intestines of cattle and other ruminant animals. It is among a small group of E. coli serotypes that produce a poison, called Shiga toxin. This poison does not affect ruminants, but in humans it can cause a type of kidney failure called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), other severe illnesses and death. There are six other common strains of E. coli that produce Shiga toxins: E. coli O26, O45, O103, O111, O121, and O145.

Symptoms of an E. coli infection, which usually develop within one to three days of exposure include abdominal cramps and diarrhea that can be bloody. Antibiotics and over-the-counter diarrhea medications should not be used to treat E. coli infections as they can increase the risk of developing HUS which usually affects about 10 percent of E. coli patients.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that about 265,000 Americans develop E. coli infections each year and about 100 of them die.


Like E. coli, Salmonella live in the intestines of animals. The CDC estimates that 1.35 million Americans contract Salmonella infections each year and about 420 people die. Symptoms of an infection include abdominal cramps, nausea, and diarrhea. These symptoms usually appear six to 72 hours after exposure and last about a week. However, after these symptoms resolve, long-term complications, including reactive arthritis and high blood pressure can develop.

In 5 to 10 percent of cases, the Salmonella infection will migrate from the intestinal tract to the bloodstream allowing it to infect the brain, lungs, heart and other vital organs. In 2018, the national food safety law firm Pritzker Hageman won a landmark $6.5 million verdict in a lawsuit against Foster Poultry Farms (Foster Farms) on behalf of a toddler whose Salmonella infection created a massive brain abscess. His illness was one of more than 600 hundred linked to a chicken Salmonella outbreak that lasted 16 months before ending in July 2014. To save the little boy’s life, surgeons had to cut open his skull and remove the ballooning sac of infectious pus compressing his brain tissue.

Although Salmonella can and does cause adverse health consequences and death, it isn’t considered an adulterant for raw meat and poultry. So, it’s technically legal to sell raw meat or poultry that is contaminated with Salmonella. And companies do.

The 2013-2014 Salmonella outbreak was not the first for Foster Farms. And the main reason it lasted 16 months was that the company would not issue a recall even after being presented with epidemiological evidence linking its products to illnesses. It wasn’t until testing by health officials found the outbreak strain in an unopened package of chicken in the freezer of one of the people who became sick that the company issued a recall that the outbreak ended.


Listeria is found in nature and grows well in cool, damp environments including the facilities where meat and poultry products are produced.

Symptoms of a Listeria infection include diarrhea, abdominal cramps, headache, fever, stiff neck, muscle aches, confusion, loss of balance, and convulsions. Usually, these symptoms develop within two weeks of exposure, but sometimes they can take as long as 70 days to appear. Among pregnant women, Listeria can cause miscarriage and stillbirth. The CDC estimates that 1,600 people in the U.S. develop Listeria infections each year. Of those, about 260 die.


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