11/26/2012 12:49 EST | Updated 01/26/2013 05:12 EST

The Top Five Food Germs Battle it Out

Angie Tee

Since the dawn of the millennium, reality programming has inundated the media with the competition format making the lion's share of offerings. The process is simple: a collection of individuals undergoes a series of challenges to vie for a prize and the title of champion, master or idol. At one time, these contests focused solely on survivor skills, singing prowess or dancing ability but the genre has expanded featuring everything from the ability to cook, design fashion and tattoo skin to more obscure talents including special effects makeup and coping with Donald Trump.

It was only going to be a matter of time before the first Germ Idol was chosen.

Earlier this year, a scientific article from the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida focused on finding the top foodborne pathogen in the United States. Their results were not based on votes, but metaphorically speaking by toilet flushes. Yet the process was no different than what one might see in any reality competition and the results are just as dramatic with some favourites making the grade and a dark horse taking the ultimate prize.

The researchers took a selection of 14 foodborne pathogens and compared them based on the number of illness caused, the number of hospitalizations, the cost of illness and what's known as the cost to a person's quality of life, known more specifically as the QALY loss. They looked at over 170,000 cases of illness and explored how important each pathogen was to our health, our economy and our choices of food. One by one, the pathogens demonstrated their abilities and slowly, several started to emerge from the rest of the pack, leaving a top five.

Without further delay, here are your top 14 pathogens in alphabetical order.





E. coli and its cousin strain O157:H7






The Vibrio Duo - V. vulnificus and V. parahaemolyticus


Some of these names may seem familiar simply because they have made the headlines or perhaps have made their way into your gastrointestinal tract and made you sick. But as many have learned on Celebrity Apprentice, name recognition alone does not make a champion. When put up against one another, some pathogens simply had what it takes while others could not make the grade.

In the first round of judging, the authors looked at the actual number of illnesses and several of the more well-known pathogens easily passed. But the uncommon Vibrios and Cyclospora just didn't have enough actual presence to make the cut. They were the first to be eliminated. There was a surprise as the now infamous Listeria nearly made an early exit due to a rather low number of overall infections. But because of its ability to cause severe outbreaks when it does happen to appear, it was given a bump to the next stage.

The next challenge involved the effects of the economy, in terms of health care costs, loss of productivity and other burdens. This round left several pathogens in its wake including Yersinia, Cryptosporidium, Clostridium and the regular E. coli. There may have been a significant number of infections but their monetary impact was not as high as needed to make the top five.

But this round had an incredible shock as two of the suspected front runners left the competition. Shigella, which is known worldwide as the cause of dysentery and other burdensome diarrheas, simply did not have the impact expected and was let go. But even more incredible was the departure of E. coli O157:H7. Although the bacterium has been implicated in some of the worst outbreaks in history including the Walkerton tragedy and the 2006 spinach scare, its actual impact was not enough to take it to the top five.

The final round to determine the winner of the foodborne germs idol was a tough one as it focused on QALY as well as one other factor: deaths. In this category, the top five were beyond all the others and showed themselves to be true foodborne champions. But in the final tally, only one could emerge as the winner.


Five Most Dangerous Foodborne Pathogens

In fifth place came the noroviruses, which came as a total shock as it was expected to be number one. The virus is the most common cause of viral gastroenteritis and can be found all over the world. Yet, the numbers were just not strong enough to take it any higher.

In fourth place was Salmonella. This bacterium is known to be in poultry including eggs although its prevalence in our social mindset is much larger. Salmonella has found its way into the lyrics of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the germophobic compulsions of Sheldon Cooper. Yet despite its presence in the vernacular, the numbers just didn't add up to give it top spot.

In third place was Listeria, which was a fair showing considering it was nearly eliminated in the first round. Although the bacterium doesn't infect many, when it does, there are both health and economic burdens. Over the last few years, the number of outbreaks has grown such that the CDC has an entire section of the website devoted to providing past and present outbreak information. This comes as no surprise as infection may lead to mild flu symptoms in many but in those with underlying conditions and immune suppression, this bacterium can cause a more severe infection and may even cause death.

In second place, and the true dark horse of the competition was Toxoplasma. This parasite is more commonly associated with cat feces although thanks to a rather complex life cycle that involves rats, birds and farm animals, we get infected through the ingestion of contaminated pork and poultry. The problem with infection is that it can be long term and affect not only the gastrointestinal tract but other organs. Those with weakened immune systems are especially at risk and infection can lead to severe consequences. Without proper treatment, a person's life can be at risk. Due to this potential to cause long term problems as well as premature death, Toxoplasma leaped ahead of all the better known pathogens to step into the runner-up position.

But not even this parasite could steal away the championship from the declared winner:


This bacterium is the perfect foodborne pathogen. It's primarily found in poultry and is responsible for nearly a tenth of all the foodborne infections. Its health and economic costs were just ahead of Toxoplasma but its effect on QALY was nearly double that of the second place pathogen. Infection is not usually deadly but can ruin a person's week with diarrhea, cramping, nausea, fever and chills and a simple loss of energy. The infection can be treated but most health professionals simply suggest waiting for the bacterium to disappear on its own. As a result, once this squiggly bug gets into you, it will stick with you worse than that Gangnam song for days to come.

This series of germs idol focused on the foodborne pathogens but there are surely more to come as infections can occur in the respiratory tract, the skin and through sexual contact. Although the popularity of this contest pales in comparison to its singing idol counterpart, this competition is so much more important as it points out some of the most prevalent germs in our lives today. After all, one might not remember who won in each of the years of American Idol, but once someone has been infected with one of these germs idols, it's an experience they are sure not to forget.