Clostridium difficile, known as "C. diff," can cause a serious infection that is responsible for 14,000 American deaths annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It's estimated there are about 500,000 U.S. cases of C. diff infection annually, and that about 3 to 5 percent of healthy adults are carriers of toxic C. diff bacteria but experience no symptoms.
Normally associated with the use of broad-spectrum antibiotics during a stay in the hospital or in other healthcare settings, C. diff infection is marked by frequent, watery diarrhea; abdominal pain or tenderness; and inflammation of the colon, or colitis. Toxins released by the bacterium can attack the lining of the intestines, and severe infections can lead to sepsis or intestinal perforation.
The elderly and immuno-compromised individuals are most at risk.
Although no cases as yet have been specifically linked with food, it's estimated that 20 to 27% of cases of C. diff infection are not associated with healthcare settings.
"It's not clear where they come from," says Jeffrey LeJeune, microbiologist with Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, the outreach and research arms of Ohio State University's College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.
"We want to encourage public health officials to look at food as a possibility."
LeJeune, along with former doctoral student Alex Rodriguez-Palacios and University of Delaware food scientist Dallas Hoover, wrote on "Clostridium difficile: An Emerging Food Safety Risk" in a recent issue of Food Technology, the official publication of the Institute of Food Technologists. They were asked to submit the article after participating in a panel discussion on the topic at the 2011 IFT annual meeting. A PDF of the article is available by clicking here.