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Your Guide to the Most Dangerous Foodborne Pathogens Identified by the FDA

big 6 foodborne pathogens

Do you know that nearly one in 10 people globally falls ill due to foodborne diseases every year? That’s a staggering 600 million people worldwide. According to the World Health Organization, these diseases lead to more than 420,000 deaths annually. It’s a sobering reality that highlights the crucial importance of food safety.

Foodborne illnesses aren’t just a personal health issue. They exert a significant toll on our healthcare systems and society at large. Think about it: when people get sick, they can’t go to work or school, medical costs increase, and productivity decreases. This ripple effect underscores why we need to be sure about the food we consume.

But here’s the good news: Awareness is half the battle. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has taken a giant step towards enhancing this awareness by identifying six major foodborne pathogens—the ‘Big 6.’

Why Did the FDA Identify the ‘Big 6’ Pathogens?

Foodborne illnesses can be tricky. They’re not only harmful to our health, but they can also spread rapidly, causing widespread outbreaks. In this situation, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) intervenes. The FDA has identified what it calls the ‘Big 6’ – a group of pathogens that are highly contagious and known to cause severe illness. These six culprits – Norovirus, Nontyphoidal Salmonella, Salmonella Typhi, E. coli, Shigella, and Hepatitis A – are often the leading causes of foodborne illnesses.

So, why did the FDA zero in on these six? Well, these pathogens are easily spread in food service environments and are responsible for the most severe and widespread outbreaks. By identifying and focusing on these six, the FDA aims to enhance our understanding of these diseases and promote measures that prevent their spread.

The ‘Big 6’ as Identified by the Food and Drug Administration

Let’s take a closer look at each of these pathogens:

1. Norovirus

Norovirus, often called the “stomach flu,” is not a guest you want at your party. This highly contagious virus thrives in places where lots of people are gathered, like schools or cruise ships, and it spreads like wildfire through contaminated food or water, or even just touching a contaminated surface. 

Symptoms can show up quickly, sometimes as little as 12 hours after exposure, and they’re not pleasant: think stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Since there’s no specific treatment for Norovirus, prevention is your best bet. Good hygiene practices, particularly regular and thorough handwashing, especially before handling food, can help keep this unwelcome visitor at bay.

2. Nontyphoidal Salmonella

Nontyphoidal Salmonella is one of the most common causes of food poisoning. It’s usually found lurking in undercooked or raw foods, particularly eggs and poultry. If you happen to ingest this bacteria, you can expect to experience symptoms like diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps for about 4-7 days. While most people recover without needing medical treatment, some cases can be severe enough to require hospitalization.

3. Salmonella Typhi

Salmonella Typhi, the bacteria responsible for Typhoid fever, is more prevalent in areas with poor sanitation. It typically spreads through contaminated food or water, making it a serious concern in developing countries. The illness it causes can be quite severe, and without prompt treatment with antibiotics, it could even be fatal. So, if you’re traveling to areas where Typhoid fever is common, it’s a good idea to get vaccinated beforehand.

4. E. coli O157:H7

coli O157:H7 is a strain of E. coli that you don’t want to mess with. This particular strain produces a toxin that can lead to severe illness. In some cases, it can cause hemolytic uremic syndrome, a type of kidney failure that can be life-threatening. The bacteria are often found in ground beef and raw milk, but they can also contaminate fresh produce. To protect yourself, make sure to cook your meat thoroughly, avoid unpasteurized milk and juice, and wash your fruits and vegetables before eating.

5. Shigella

Shigella is the culprit behind shigellosis, a diarrheal disease that can be quite severe, especially in those with weakened immune systems. It’s highly contagious and spreads easily through direct contact, so maintaining good hygiene practices is crucial for preventing its spread. This includes washing your hands regularly and avoiding sharing food or drinks with others. If you do get infected, antibiotics can shorten the duration of the illness and help prevent its spread to others.

6. Hepatitis A

Hepatitis A is a virus that targets the liver. It can cause a range of illnesses from mild to severe, lasting a few weeks to several months. It typically spreads when someone ingests food or water contaminated by feces from an infected person, but can also spread through close personal contact with an infected person. 

The good news is that there’s a safe and effective vaccine available for Hepatitis A, which is highly recommended for those traveling to areas where the virus is common.

Is there a way to know if food is contaminated with the big 6?

Detecting food contaminated with the “Big 6” pathogens – Norovirus, Nontyphoidal Salmonella, Salmonella Typhi, E. coli, Shigella, and Hepatitis A – can be challenging. These dangerous microorganisms do not typically alter the taste, smell, or appearance of the food, making it difficult to identify contaminated food just by looking at it or tasting it.

Signs of an infection are usually noticed after consumption of the contaminated food and may vary depending on the specific pathogen. Unfortunately, there is no surefire way to detect if a food is contaminated with these pathogens unless the microorganisms produce enough by-products to cause noticeable changes.

Therefore, prevention is key to avoiding foodborne illnesses. The CDC recommends following four simple food safety steps: clean, separate, cook, and chill to prevent foodborne illnesses.

Turning Knowledge into Power: The Big 6 Pathogens and You

Knowledge is indeed power, and when it comes to preventing diseases like Norovirus, Nontyphoidal Salmonella, Salmonella Typhi, E. coli O157:H7, Shigella, and Hepatitis A, understanding these pathogens and how they spread is crucial.

Each of these diseases has its own unique characteristics, transmission methods, and prevention strategies, but common threads run through them all. Regular handwashing is one of the most important good hygiene habits. Proper food handling and preparation can prevent many cases of foodborne illnesses. Vaccinations, where available, are a powerful tool against some of these diseases.

By knowing more about these “Big 6,” you can plan for prevention in your daily life. This might mean taking extra care when preparing meals, making sure to get vaccinated before traveling to certain areas, or simply reinforcing good handwashing habits among children and adults alike. In public health, prevention is always better than cure, and with the right knowledge, we can all play a part in stopping the spread of these diseases.

Moreover, this knowledge is not just beneficial for individual protection, but also for community health. The more people who understand these diseases, the more we can collectively do to prevent outbreaks and safeguard our communities. From schools to workplaces to homes, everyone benefits when we use our knowledge to prevent disease.


  • Diane Silva

    Diane is a travel enthusiast, content creator, and master storyteller, capturing her adventures through captivating blogs and engaging vlogs. With a passion for the great outdoors and a love for literature, she brings a unique perspective to the travel world. Whether she's exploring hidden gems or discussing the latest trends, Diane is your go-to source for all things travel and beyond.