This is FRONTLINE's old website. The content here may be outdated or no longer functioning.

Browse over 300 documentaries
on our current website.

Watch Now
modern meat
is your meat safe?
industrial meat

food-borne illnesses
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) calculates that every year in the United States, there are approximately 76 million cases of food-borne illness, with 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths. Here's a rundown of statistics on food-borne illnesses in America, the most common pathogens found in meat, poultry, and other foods, and the symptoms of the illnesses they can cause. These statistics represent all cases of food-borne illness, not simply those spread by meat and poultry. The CDC does not provide statistics breaking down cases of food-borne illness by their source, but as reported in "Modern Meat," it is estimated that at least one third of the 5,000 deaths each year from food-borne illness can be attributed to meat and poultry.

On April 18, 2002, the day that FRONTLINE's documentary "Modern Meat" was broadcast, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) released their latest data on the level of food-borne illness in the United States.

The CDC data show salmonella infections decreasing by 15 percent between 1996 and 2001. E. coli O157 infection dropped by 21 percent since 2000. The chart below reflects these latest numbers. This decrease continues the trend noted by the CDC's Dr. Robert Tauxe in "Modern Meat."

Additionally, the latest USDA data show a decrease in the incidence of salmonella in raw meat and poultry from 1998-2001. Test results for ground beef decreased from 7.5 percent to 3.4 percent and broilers decreased from 20 percent to 10.7 percent.

Both the CDC and USDA cite the implementation of the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) system of inspection as a principal reason why the amount of foodborne illness appears to be dropping.

graph of incidence of diagnosed food-borne infections

SOURCE: "Preliminary FoodNet Data on the Incidence of Food-borne Illnesses -- Selected Sites, United States, 2000" and "Preliminary FoodNet Data on the Incidence of Food-borne Illnesses -- Selected Sites, United States, 2001" from the CDC's Food-borne Diseases Active Surveillance Network (FoodNet)


Campylobacteriosis is a disease caused by the campylobacter bacteria, a weak bacteria that can be killed by exposure to oxygen. Often found in chickens, it is commonly contracted by eating undercooked poultry or drinking raw milk. The bacteria are present in more than half of the raw chicken in the United States.

The CDC estimates that of the 1 percent of the American population that contracts campylobacteriosis every year, virtually all who are infected will recover without any special treatment, while 500 people will die. Symptoms of campylobacteriosis include vomiting and diarrhea, and it can also lead to Guillain-Barr Syndrome, a rare yet severe neurological disease.

Campylobacteriosis has become increasingly resistant to fluoroquinolones, a type of antibiotic that is used to treat it, and some have argued that the overuse of antibiotics in poultry has contributed to this development.

Proper food handling and hygiene are the best defenses against the disease.

E. coli O157:H7

E. coli is one of the most common bacteria in the intestinal tract. Most forms of the bacteria are harmless, but one newer strain that is sometimes found in the intestinal tracts of cattle, E. coli O157:H7, can be deadly. Anywhere from 1-3 percent of cattle may be carrying E. coli O157:H7 in their digestive tracts, and the incidence peaks in hot summer months.

If cattle are slaughtered improperly, infected fecal matter on the hide of the animals may make it into meat, which is one way that the bacteria are spread to humans. People can also become infected with E. coli O157:H7 by consuming fruits and vegetables that have come into contact with tainted water or meat. After consuming as few as 10 microbes of the bacteria, people can fall seriously ill and even die.

Toxins produced by E. coli O157:H7 can cause kidney failure, and those who ingest the bacteria may develop hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a sometimes fatal disease that destroys red blood cells.

Cooking meat completely at high temperatures will kill the bacteria, but fatal E. coli O157:H7 also has been acquired through unpasteurized juice and tainted salad bars.


Listeria is an environmental microorganism that thrives in cold temperatures and can be found in the water droplets on ceilings and floor drains. It is killed during pasteurization and heating, so prepared meats that are contaminated during processing and are not re-cooked are most susceptible (hot dogs and deli meats, for example).

Listeriosis, the disease caused by listeria bacteria, is particularly a problem for pregnant women, who are about 20 times more likely to be infected than other adults. The bacteria can cause complications before and during birth, and can even lead to a newborn's death. Of the 2,500 people a year to get seriously sick from listeria, 500 die. Symptoms of the disease vary but can include muscle aches, stiff necks, and convulsions.


Salmonella is a group of bacteria that live in the intestinal tracts of humans and animals, including birds. Humans can acquire salmonellosis after they consume foods that have been contaminated by animal feces that contain salmonella bacteria. Salmonella is also often found in contaminated shell eggs, and can survive the light cooking of lasagna or a meringue pie. An estimated 25 percent of all broiler chickens sold in the United States is tainted with salmonella. And while contaminated foods are often of animal origin, all foods -- including vegetables -- may become contaminated.

Most people infected with salmonella develop diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps within a couple of days of ingesting the bacteria. Some strains of salmonella have become resistant to antibiotics. It causes 500 deaths a year in America.

Contaminated foods usually look and smell normal, so all foods should be thoroughly washed before handling and then cooked well.

home + industrial meat + interviews + the politics of meat + is your meat safe? + the inspection system
inside the slaughterhouse + producer chat + introduction + discussion + video
tapes & transcripts + press reaction + credits + privacy policy
FRONTLINE + wgbh + pbsi

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation