Top 10 Worst Food Poisoning Events In History

Food safety is something that most of us take very seriously - whether it's exercising safety measures and/or preventing food products from being contaminated. Although mistakes do happen, food poisoning incidents like these can unfortunately lead into tragic situations. This list not only includes outbreaks, but food contamination events caused by chemicals, toxins, and man-made events that are either accidental or done in purpose. According to CDC, 48 million people are infected with foodborne illnesses annually, with 128,000 hospitalized, and 3,000 dying. This list presents 10 worst food poisoning events that happened throughout history.
The Top Ten
1 Methylmercury Poisoning in Japan (1950s)

Infamously known as the Minimata disease. This was caused by a chemical "Minamata" factory from the Chisso coporation that polluted the wastewater bodies with harmful chemicals and methylmecury starting from 1932 to 1968, when no measures have been taken at this time. Minamata was a place where fish was the "staple food" that was commonly eaten. The Minamata disease was officially discovered on May 1, 1956, declaring it as an "epidemic of an unknown disease of the central nervous system". Fish started to gather in the wastewater where they started to be contaminated with chemicals lurking in their body, in which the local population ate. This marked the first observation of the symptoms of the Minamata disease, as the local cats were described showing bizarre behavior, then came along with locals who ate fish and displayed similar symptoms - including numbness, trembling, weakness, hearing impairment, and ataxia. In severe cases the disease can lead to coma, paralysis, and even death. Not only these were the symptoms; women who have been contaminated with the chemicals also gave birth to babies who were severely deformed - both physically and mentally. Later on, compensations were made by Chisso by spending tens of millions of money to those who've fallen victim to the disease. In total, about almost 2,000 people have died, with thousands receiving long-term complications from the disease.

2 The Chinese Milk Scandal (2008)

You wonder why the label "Made In China" is negatively associated with some of the most notorious events like these. Here we look up to arguably one of the worst food contamination incidents that has happened in China. The incident started when Sanlu Group's baby milk formula was being tainted with melamine in attempt to look as if the milk had "higher protein". In result, over 300,000 babies were affected, with over 50,000 babies being hospitalized, and 6 succumbing to damages on the kidneys. All of these while trying to cover-up as many allegations of their wrongdoings no matter how many suspicions were raised, even going so far to pay their critics in order to succeed in their concealment. This resulted not only with its food safety regulations being criticized by its citizens, but two executions were placed in those involved in the scandal, along with 3 life imprisonments including the chairwoman of the company involved, coupled with mass recalls from many countries. It also had a major negative impact on Chinese farmers as well, who were faced with difficulties selling milk and even had to sell their own cows and slaughter other livestock in order to thrive.

3 Yusho Disease (1968)

This is another infamous incident that also happened in Japan. Occurring in early 1968, chemicals such as PCBs and PCDFs escaped through a pipe leakage which seeped through rice bran oils produced by the Kanemi Company, which in result not only affected over 14,000 people, but killed hundreds of thousands of birds and poultry. About over 500 people have died in the incident. PCBs are notoriously known for being a carcinogen which have a wide use over products. Since it is practically found in food, high doses are often associated with skin problems including acne, along with higher risks of cancer.

4 Mass Methylmercury Poisoning in Iraq (1971)

Consider this the Middle-East version of the Minamata disease. In 1971, drought was striking in the country as it put pressure among civilians. In order to counter this effect, grain was imported to Iraq that was apparently added with a methylmercury fungicide from Mexico. At that time, mercury was considered an effective chemical for preventing fungi from growing. Despite having warnings not to consume the product and the products themselves looking suspicious, the locals decided it was for consumption as they did not understand the warnings due to language barriers. Soon after, people showed up in hospitals displaying symptoms similar as to the Minamata disease. With thousands of people being affected, 459 people unfortunately succumbed to the incident, although the death count is reported to be much more higher.

5 Listeriosis Outbreak in South Africa (2017)

Currently it is recorded as the worst listeriosis outbreak in the world. First reported by doctors, it was caused by contaminated meats from Enterprise Foods, which was owned by the largest South-African company Tiger Brands. Over a thousand people were affected by the outbreak, with just over 200 people dead.

6 Arsenic in Morinaga Milk (1955)

Along with the Minamata disease, this was among one of the worst food poisoning accidents occurring in Japan. Surprisingly, this incident happened coincidentally with the Minamata disease being present. In 1955, people reported symptoms of vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, and skin abnormalities occurring in their babies after being fed with powdered milk. Soon after, the cause was traced back to the Morinaga company, and that arsenic was unintentionally added into the formula, thus causing those symptoms. Not only did it claim 100 deaths on affected individuals, but surviving individuals lived with long term health problems - both mentally and physically, including seizures and a lower average IQ.

7 Mozambique beer poisoning incident (2015)

In early 2015, a case of contaminated pombe (also known as Millet beer which is popular throughout Africa) resulted in deaths from 75 people and affected hundreds at a funeral in Mozambique. It was first blamed that the beer was contaminated with crocodile bile. However this wasn't the case. When further investigations were initiated, it was found out that the root cause of the incident was by bacteria, which had led to the production of highly toxic substances - Bongkrek acid and toxoflavin.

8 England Arsenic Beer Poisoning Incident (1900)

Occurring in the year of 1900, this was an "unusual" incident that had gone unnoticed for several months, before taking action. It's also important to note that people were habitual drinkers, and would receive symptoms associated with alcohol. However, the cases of alcoholism and other conditions intensified, including those who often got drunk less. People reported having skin discolorations, weakness, and fatigue. This lead to over 6,000 people being affected by the incident, with over 70 people dying. When the incident was reported, an enormous amount of beer was poured in some of the sewers, along with a sharp decrease on consuming beer.

9 Delhi Oil Poisoning (1998)

In 1998, people reported a spike of dropsy, gastrointestinal problems, difficulty of breathing, and swelling that was caused by consuming adulterated mustard oil (mixed with white oil - known as a petroleum product), which resulted in over 3,000 people affected and 60 people succumbing to the substance.

10 Salmonella in ice cream (1994)

Consider this a lesson that not properly handling pasteurized or non-pasteurized milk can lead to this disaster. This was the largest case of food poisoning which is dated back to Schwan's ice cream, with cases reaching about over 224,000. The root cause was ice cream mixed with unpasteurized eggs from tanker trailers.

The Contenders
11 Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak (1992-1993)

Food safety should be always exercised in all fast food restaurants, however this wasn't the case for Jack in the Box back in 1992. In early 1993, there was an unusual rise of people developing Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome which was traced back to undercooked beef patties in burgers. Surprisingly, it's not only adults but many children were affected by the outbreak, reaching over 700 cases with 138 of those being severe. Ultimately, the outbreak led into 4 deaths of children, with over 100 survivors suffering from long-term complications - including brain damage, paralysis, and diabetes.

12 Germany E. Coli outbreak (2011)

While some of the largest foodborne illnesses happen throughout the world, this outbreak happened to be situated in Germany. Yet this isn't a typical E. Coli outbreak you would imagine; this was in fact the deadliest E. Coli outbreak, which resulted in 53 deaths. Almost 4,000 people have officially contracted the disease, with almost a thousand suffering from hemolytic uremic syndrome (a severe condition consisting of vomiting, weakness, and bloody diarrhea which can lead to heart failure in some cases. The main cause of the outbreak was an E. Coli strain that produced Shiga toxins. Not only this resulted in hundreds of severe cases and deaths, but it led to the cost of over $2.8 billion in damages, almost reaching $3 billion in total.

13 Listeriosis Outbreak in Canada (2008)
14 E. Coli in South Wales (2005)
15 Loch Maree Hotel Botulism Incident (1922)
16 Rajneeshee Bioterror Attacks (1984)
17 Chuck E. Cheese Outbreak in Maryland (2007)
18 Leongatha Mushroom Poisoning (2023)
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