This Is the Biggest Source of Food Poisoning (and It’s Not Salmonella)

updated May 30, 2019
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(Image credit: CDC)

If you’re worried about bacteria that causes food poisoning, then chances are you’ve heard a thing or two about a bad guy named Salmonella, which makes people sick with approximately 1.2 million cases of illnesses a year. Now, there’s a new name to learn, as Salmonella has been dethroned as the most common bacteria to cause food poisoning in the United States.

Campylobacter (kam-pih-loh-BAK’-tur) is currently the biggest villain, according to the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While Salmonella ranked at the very top of the list for the past 20 years, things have changed. In 2016, Campylobacter pushed Salmonella from the number-one spot to the number-two spot. Other bacteria that made the cut are shigella and E.coli.

(Image credit: Susmita Baral)

While the report only looked at data from 10 states, posing the possibility that the spiral-shaped bacteria is a more localized problem, it does show the rise of a new bacteria. And the CDC maintains data from the 10 states is reflective of national trends.

Campylobacter is largely seen in unpasteurized dairy products, but contaminated chicken, produce, and water are also common sources. Upon exposure to the bacteria, symptoms — diarrhea, cramping, abdominal pain, and fever — can show up within two to five days and the illness lasts around a week. While the organism isn’t usually fatal, the CDC estimates there are 76 deaths a year associated with Campylobacter infections.

The good news is that the overall rate of food poisoning has remained constant over the past three years so there’s no need to be too paranoid about Campylobacter.

Approximately one in six Americans are getting sick from food poisoning each year. Consumers can protect themselves from food poisoning by watching their food preparation habits. The CDC recommends carefully washing and cleaning food, ensuring meat and eggs are not undercooked, and abstaining from ingesting raw milk and unpasteurized beverages.