It’s a scary thought, putting your health and wellbeing in the hands of complete strangers halfway around the world. And the number of high profile, and often deadly, food scandals that have made headlines over the years definitely doesn’t ease troubled minds. There are various causes – from accidental contaminations to pure recklessness and even greed – but public outrage is universal.
When it comes to health and safety surrounding food products, consumers rightly insist on measures that ensure their safety. And whether it’s criminal trials and bans, or bankruptcy and company closures, the public demands retribution as well. After all, health issues are no laughing matter. Here’s a look at 10 of the biggest food safety scandals in recent history.
10. Sudan I – UK/Worldwide (2005)
In 2005, the largest food recall in UK history began after industrial dye Sudan I was discovered in a shipment of Crosse & Blackwell Worcester Sauce. The additive, along with variants III and IV, was popularly used to color food before it was discovered to be carcinogenic and in 2003 was banned in many EU countries, including the UK. So, in 2005, Premier Foods (who owned Crosse & Blackwell until they sold it in 2011) faced media and public scrutiny when tests proved the presence of the chemical, which is often used in waxes, petrol, oils, polishes, and solvents.
The dye was also discovered in other items, from pizzas to Pot Noodles, and in the end more than 400 products were recalled. Furthermore, contaminated products were discovered in Italy and South Africa as well. While there have been no direct fatalities, and there was consensus that the risk was pretty small, the potential future effect of the banned carcinogen could be serious, and immediate action was required. The origin of the contamination was eventually traced back to an adulterated batch of chili powder in India.
Highlighting the international repercussions and reputational damage of such incidents, the government of Sudan lodged a request for the name of the dye to be changed.
9. Chi-Chi’s Hepatitis A Outbreak – USA (2003)
Internationally operated Mexican restaurant Chi-Chi’s has had a checkered financial history since it was founded in Richfield, Minnesota in 1975. However, 2003 was the chain’s darkest year, when a Chi-Chi’s restaurant at Beaver Valley Mall, Pennsylvania (30 miles northwest of Pittsburgh) was implicated in what has been described as the largest food-borne outbreak of hepatitis A in US history.
Hepatitis A is an acute viral infection of the liver with low mortality rates in the US, but in November 2003 the virus led to the deaths of at least four people and infected a further 660 in the Pittsburgh area. Green onions were eventually identified as the source of the outbreak.
Chi-Chi’s was already facing bankruptcy at that point, and by the time the cases were settled in 2004, the number of Chi-Chi’s restaurants in the US had halved. Eventually, Chi-Chi’s closed in the US for good and now only operates in Belgium, Luxembourg, the UAE, Kuwait, and Indonesia.
8. Jack in the Box E. Coli Incident – USA (1993)
Whether the source is contaminated water or undercooked meat, deadly bacterium Escherichia coli O157:H7, commonly referred to as E. coli, has garnered a lot of negative mainstream attention in recent years – but this incident was right up there with the worst of them.
With thousands of outlets across the US, you’d think a company as big as Jack in the Box would do everything in its power to safeguard its burger empire – and the wellbeing of its customers. However, in 1993 the franchise was implicated when an outbreak of E. coli led to the deaths of four children and infected up to 700 people across four states, hospitalizing at least 171 of them.
The outbreak was traced back to undercooked patties contaminated with fecal matter in the Seattle area and other parts of the Pacific Northwest. As you’d imagine, the scandal affected business, almost leaving the company bankrupt.
Adding to the controversy, court documents revealed a company memo from just four months before the outbreak that read, “If patties are cooked longer… they tend to become tough.” And according to numerous other documents, Jack in the Box had already been warned about undercooked burgers and contaminated beef 10 months prior to the incident.
7. Methanol Poisoning – Estonia (2001), Czech Republic (2012)
In September 2012, the Czech Republic banned the sale of alcoholic beverages with over 20 percent alcohol content following a series of deaths and serious illnesses traced back to methanol-tainted booze. According to the World Health Organization, the Czech Republic is the world’s second largest consumer of hard liquor after Moldova, and the country has struggled to stamp out bootleg alcohol for years.
It’s thought that 20 individuals died within around two weeks of the poisoning outbreak, and according to reports, other people were left blind and even brain-damaged as a result of the incident. Cases also came to light in Slovakia after people consumed Czech-bought alcohol. And the problem led to Poland banning the import of Czech spirits for 30 days.
The Czech Republic is not alone when it comes to tainted alcohol incidents in Eastern Europe. A crisis involving methanol-contaminated alcohol also hit Estonia in 2001, leading to the deaths of 68 people. Over a decade later, Estonian doctors fear the country is still not prepared for another similar event.
6. Jalisco Mexican Cheese Listeria Incident – USA (1985)
With a mortality rate of 20 to 30 percent, listeriosis is a serious bacterial infection particularly dangerous to newborn babies, the elderly, and those with weak immune systems. An infamous April 1985 outbreak in Los Angeles, California was linked to a popular Mexican soft cheese. And it proved particularly tragic, as it is thought to have caused as many as 62 deaths, including stillbirths.
A month of investigations carried out by health officials traced the cause back to two types of Mexican-style cheese manufactured by Jalisco Mexican Products Inc. Most of those infected during the incident were members of California’s large Hispanic population.
Listeria has been found in cattle but can be eliminated from milk during pasteurization. The District Attorney’s office discovered that Jalisco’s records proved they could not possibly have been pasteurizing all of their supplies and accused them of knowingly processing untreated milk. In the aftermath, Jalisco shut down permanently, and neither the company nor its insurers were unable to cover the estimated $100 million in compensation claims.
5. Diethylene Glycol Wine Poisoning – Austria (1985)
In 1985, in an attempt to cash in on the popularity of their sweeter, late-harvest wines, a small number of Austrian wineries colluded to adulterate their stock with toxic diethylene glycol – a key ingredient in certain antifreeze brands that also gives wines a sweeter, more full-bodied flavor. The scandal was exposed in Germany, where the wines were illegally blended with local wines, spreading the contamination.
While there were no recorded fatalities as a result of the incident, the world was shocked and the consequences were swift. The scandal made headlines around the globe, and the contaminated wines were immediately pulled from shelves. In the end, a combination of heavy fines and prison sentences (in Germany and Austria) and the resulting negative publicity meant that Austrian wine export volumes would not return to pre-scandal levels until 2001, over 15 years after the event.
Interestingly, in 1937, a similar incident resulted in the deaths of over 100 people in the US after individuals consumed a contaminated elixir. This led to the instatement of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938.
4. Salmonella and the Peanut Corporation of America – USA (2008)
From 2008 to 2009, an outbreak of salmonella spelled the end for 33-year-old Virginia-based peanut processing company, the Peanut Corporation of America. The devastating outbreak led to one of the largest food recalls in US history. In all, it caused the deaths of nine individuals, and at least 691 people – many of them children – were affected across 46 states.
A subsequent investigation of the company’s facilities in Georgia, Virginia and Texas by the Food and Drug Administration proved damning. In Georgia, it was discovered that the company knew its peanut butter products were contaminated with salmonella but shipped them regardless. And between 2007 and 2008, this happened at least a dozen times. Meanwhile, the Texas investigation revealed that the plant hadn’t been inspected and wasn’t even licensed to manufacture food in the state.
But salmonella wasn’t the company’s only concern. It was also revealed that a previous shipment of peanuts sent to Canada was not allowed to re-enter the US after it was found to contain a “filthy, putrid or decomposed substance” and fragments of metal.
The company’s actions were widely condemned, and it was eventually forced to shut down. Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin summed up the situation at the time: “They tried to hide it so they could sell it. Now they’ve caused a mammoth problem that could destroy their company – and it could destroy the peanut industry.”
3. Karnataka Liquor Deaths – India (1981 and 2008)
Illegal alcohol has been killing people around the world for decades, but over the years, specific incidents have focused the world’s attention on the inherent health risks of bootleg liquor. In 1981, the Indian state of Karnataka was rocked by a wave of tainted booze-related deaths. In July that year, it’s thought that at least 308 people died after consuming cheap, methyl-contaminated alcohol.
Yet even following such a tragedy, the problem remains serious in the region – and in 2008, alcohol laced with chemicals claimed the lives of 180 people in Karnataka. While authorities were quick to arrest some 20 dealers, and 25 customs officials were also suspended, the origin of the deadly product proved difficult to determine. What’s more, this recent case became even more complicated when police began investigating the possibility that political parties had supplied the alcohol in the run-up to state elections.
2 E. Coli Outbreak – Germany (2011)
In May 2011, people were advised to avoid eating bean sprouts, cucumbers, tomatoes and salads in Germany after Europe was hit by a serious outbreak of food-borne E. coli poisoning. Within weeks of the outbreak, German authorities were investigating the deaths of 17 people and the illnesses of a further 1,600.
By this point, other countries around the world were also swept up in the pandemonium, and a ban was placed on EU vegetables. Eventually, the death toll numbered 53, with 51 of those fatalities in Germany. And the total number of affected people reached a staggering 3,950.
Amid widespread panic, the World Health Organization described the outbreak as a “new and aggressive strain that could cause internal bleeding, kidney failure, and neurological symptoms.”
Initially, it was suggested that the outbreak was caused by tainted Spanish cucumbers, which angered Spanish people and caused the country’s exporters to lose millions of dollars a week. In June 2011, German officials confirmed that the source of the outbreak was in fact bean sprouts from an organic farm in northern Germany.
1. Melamine Milk Scandal – China (2008)
One of the largest and most shocking food disasters of them all was the Chinese Milk Scandal that shook the world in 2008. Powdered baby milk and other dairy products across the country were found to contain dangerously high levels of the industrial chemical melamine – and the results were tragic. Staggeringly, some 300,000 people are estimated to have been affected.
The melamine had a particular effect on victims’ kidneys. Tragically, six infants died from kidney stones and other kidney-related issues. Meanwhile, a further 860 infants were hospitalized.
Confronted with what it believed was the largest food safety incident it had ever faced, the World Health Organization’s assessment was blunt. It described the incident as “clearly not an isolated accident, [but] a large-scale intentional activity to deceive consumers for simple, basic, short-term profits.”
Several companies were found to have deliberately added melamine to their products, and a number of criminal prosecutions resulted in two executions, a suspended death sentence, and life incarcerations. The poisoning cast further bad light on the Chinese food industry, and after the scandal, 11 countries ceased importing Chinese dairy products.