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How often do Minnesotans get sick from their food?

Some food-borne illness data to enjoy over the lunch hour.

It’s been a really bad a week for a lot of college students in Boston.

Since last Sunday, more than 120 poor souls have reported to the college’s health services with symptoms of Norovirus — known in the United Kingdom by the more descriptive moniker: “winter vomiting bug.”

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Also having a bad week is Chipotle, the restaurant that appears to be responsible for outbreak. The popular fast food chain has been linked to nine outbreaks of E. Coli since November, leading to precipitous declines in the company’s stock.

The news in Boston got us here at the MinnPost data desk thinking: how often do these outbreaks occur in Minnesota?

Quite frequently, it turns out.

From 1998 to 2014, Minnesota saw 860 reports of food-borne illness outbreaks, which puts us seventh in the nation for most outbreaks, according to the data. Calculated as a rate — per 100,000 residents — we're third in the country for outbreaks, with almost twice as many reported incidents than our neighbors in Wisconsin and nearly three times those in South Dakota.

Food-borne disease outbreaks by state, 1998—2014
Minnesota has been affected a relatively high number of reported food-borne disease outbreaks for the period in question — 860. Taking population into account, Minnesota ranks even higher nationally.

The data come from an interactive tool created by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (we highly recommend exploring the data here). This represents the most up-to-date information, though the reporting agencies, such as state and local health departments, can modify reports after the fact, meaning some data may be subject to change.

About 470 of cases in Minnesota were confirmed or suspected to be some form of Norovirus, similar to the recent Boston case. Salmonella accounted for 127 outbreak. E. Coli: 57.

Causes of food-borne illness outbreaks, 1998-2014

Collectively, including the 80 cases that crossed state lines, these outbreaks have been responsible for sickening a reported 23,804 people. The worst case came in 2010, when eggs linked to a farm in Iowa caused 2,000 illnesses nationwide, including in Minnesota.

In 1998, lettuce contaminated with C. jejuni, a bacterium commonly found in animal feces, caused 300 people to get sick, the largest single Minnesota outbreak that didn’t involve multiple states. More recently, Minnesota saw a Chipotle Salmonella outbreak in September, which sickened at least 45 people.

Illness cases by cause for food-borne illness outbreaks, 1998-2014
Note: Some data come from multi-state outbreaks, so the illnesses might not all have affected people from Minnesota.

The outbreaks have led to thousands of hospitalizations and, in some extreme cases, deaths. An example of the latter occured in 2008, when a peanut butter manufacturer distributed product contaminated with Salmonella, killing nine people, including at least one Minnesota woman. The owner of the company was convicted of 72 federal charges, including conspiracy and fraud, following detailed evidence and witness accounts that he knew about the contamination and shipped the peanut butter anyway. 

Random Acts of Data is an occasional series by MinnPost reporter Andy Mannix and news editor Tom Nehil. The goal: to answer questions about all things Minnesota using the vast amount of data at our disposal. If you have a question you’re wondering about, send an email to data@minnpost.com with the subject line, “Random Acts of Data.”