Deadly food poisoning outbreaks across the United States have sickened hundreds and killed dozens over the years. Though restaurants aren’t always at fault, they’re the places where these types of outbreaks begin most often — and the ones who face the most economic fallout.
Food contamination costs the food industry over $55 billion, forcing restaurants to pay thousands of unwanted legal and other fees every year. Here are some of the worst cases of widespread food poisoning that all started at restaurant chains.
McDonald’s hamburgers sickened 42 people in the states of Oregon and Michigan in February 1982. It was the first time officials linked E. coli to a food poisoning outbreak. The restaurant chain’s reputation didn’t suffer much, though, since the incident wasn’t widely publicized.
Next: This is still considered the worst food poisoning outbreak in U.S. history.
1993: Jack in the Box
In 1993, 732 people were infected by E. coli bacteria across four separate states and more than 70 Jack in the Box locations. Four children died of food poisoning, nearly forcing the restaurant chain out of business. It’s still known as one of the worst foodborne illness outbreaks of all time.
Next: This restaurant wasn’t the only business that suffered after a major recall.
1997: Burger King
When Hudson Foods recalled 25 million pounds of beef in 1997, Burger King scrambled to win back its customers’ faith. They changed suppliers, triggering a 48-hour burger shortage in affected locations — even though no one ever actually at the contaminated meat. Sales dropped, but only temporarily.
Next: One lawsuit could have ended it all for this popular chain.
1999: Kentucky Fried Chicken
Four Cincinnati KFC locations sold coleslaw contaminated with E. coli in 1999, sickening 18 and sending 11 of those infected to the hospital. One woman suffered permanent kidney damage and filed a lawsuit, further damaging the restaurant chain’s reputation.
Next: One family earned millions in the lawsuit that resulted from this outbreak.
Approximately 150 Wisconsin residents contracted E. coli infections after eating at Sizzler restaurants. One family, whose child died as a result of the outbreak, eventually agreed to a $13.5 million settlement with Sizzler’s meat supplier.
Next: This restaurant chain is no longer in business in the United States.
At least 650 people got sick in the most widespread hepatitis A outbreak in U.S. history. The outbreak made national news after four people died, and Chi-Chi’s was never able to recover from the hit its reputation took as a result. It no longer operates in the U.S. or Canada.
Next: This company learned the hard way how expensive lawsuits can really be.
E. coli-infected lettuce served at Wendy’s restaurants in Utah resulted in another outbreak — and plenty of legal fees. Three people contracted the same illness that led to the KFC lawsuit filed in 1999. Multiple lawsuits were filed, and later resolved, following the outbreak.
Next: Apparently 2006 was a bad year for fast food.
2006: Taco Bell
Also in 2006 — and also because of lettuce — 71 people were infected with E. coli after eating at Taco Bell. Because multiple people suffered kidney failure as a result, the state of California implemented new standards for those handling leafy green vegetables indented for human consumption.
Next: This restaurant actually appears on this list twice.
2008: Jimmy John’s
Contaminated sprouts were to blame for the first of several E. coli outbreaks linked back to Jimmy John’s restaurants. The chain was eventually forced to stop serving the popular sandwich add-on after they caused five food poisoning outbreaks in less than five years.
Next: There’s a reason lettuce gets such a bad rap.
2013: Federico’s Mexican Food
Nearly 100 people fell ill after eating E. coli-contaminated lettuce served at Federico’s Mexican Food restaurants in Arizona. The restaurant chain faced multiple lawsuits following the outbreak, since a large number of children were affected.
Next: This time, sprouts had nothing to do with it.
2013: Jimmy John’s (again)
Without contaminated sprouts, the sandwich company thought they were safe. They were wrong. This time, cucumbers imported from Mexico made nine people sick. Since Jimmy John’s is still doing just fine, none of its multiple E. coli outbreaks have seemed to hurt its sales, at least not in the long-term.
Next: This time, it may have been an employee’s fault.
2015 was a bad year for Chipotle. Outbreaks of norovirus, E. coli, and salmonella sickened hundreds and hospitalized many. In addition to the hit it took to its reputation, the chain also lost business, having to close all its locations for a day for a food safety “meeting.”
Next: This Arizona restaurant can’t seem to get it right.
2017: Burrito Delight
People across multiple Colorado counties fell ill after a Salmonella outbreak sickening at least 20 people. Since 2015, Burrito Delight restaurants have been marked for many violations “likely … to contribute to food contamination or illness,” many of which were repeat offenses.
Next: While many restaurants can come back from this, many never do.
Some restaurants never bounce back
Chi-Chi’s wasn’t the only business that went under because of deadly food poisoning outbreaks. Grocery stores, packaging plants, and small businesses — who don’t necessarily have the financial means to stay afloat following backlash — can’t always recover when food contamination spreads.
Next: Who’s most to blame for these cases of widespread illness and death?
Are restaurant employees at fault?
Sick employees were to blame for Chipotle’s 2015 norovirus outbreaks, but they’re not always at fault when customers get sick for eating their restaurants’ food. Deadly food poisoning outbreaks often occur due to food that isn’t inspected properly at either end of distribution. Both manufacturers and restaurants, therefore, carry most of the blame.
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