Foodborne illness (also referred to as food poisoning) is any illness resulting from the food spoilage of contaminated food, pathogenic bacteria, viruses, or parasites that contaminate food.
The CDC estimates that each year 48 million people get sick from a foodborne illness, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die.
Researchers have identified more than 250 foodborne diseases. Most of them are infections, caused by a variety of bacteria, viruses, and parasites. Harmful toxins and chemicals also can contaminate foods and cause foodborne illness.
Foodborne illness can affect anyone who eats contaminated food; however, certain populations are more susceptible to becoming ill with a greater severity of illness. These populations include infants and children, the elderly, pregnant women, people taking certain kinds of medications or immune suppressed (e.g., cancer patients, diabetics).
To prevent foodborne illness, it is necessary to understand how food becomes unsafe to eat and what proactive measures can be taken to keep food safe.
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Causes of Foodborne Illness
The causes of foodborne illness can fall into the following 3 categories:
- Biological hazards include bacteria, viruses, and parasites. Bacteria and viruses are responsible for most foodborne illnesses. Biological hazards are the biggest threat to food safety. They can be inherent in the product or due to mishandling (e.g., time/temperature abuse).
- Chemical hazards include natural toxins and chemical contaminants. Some natural toxins are associated with the food itself (i.e., certain mushrooms, PSP in molluscan shellfish), some are made by pathogens in the food when it is time/temperature abused (i.e., histamine development in certain seafood species). Some additives, such as sulfites, can be a hazard to some people. Chemical contamination can occur when products (i.e., cleaners) are not used correctly.
- Food allergens are a chemical hazard. Some people are sensitive to proteins in foods. Every food is different. Eight major food allergens include milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish (lobster, crab, shrimp), wheat, soy, peanuts, tree nuts.
- Physical hazards can include metal shavings from cans and plastic pieces or broken glass.
Types of Foodborne Illness
Pathogens can cause different types of foodborne illness. Once a contaminated food is eaten, illness can be caused by the pathogens themselves (foodborne infection); caused by toxins produced in the food by pathogens (foodborne intoxication); and caused by toxins produced in the body by pathogens (foodborne toxin-mediated infection).
Foodborne Disease-Causing Organisms
The chart below includes foodborne disease-causing organisms that frequently cause illness in the United States. As the chart shows, the threats are numerous and varied, with symptoms ranging from relatively mild discomfort to very serious,life-threatening illness. While the very young, the elderly, and persons with weakened immune systems are at greatest risk of serious consequences from most foodborne illnesses, some of the organisms shown below pose grave threats to all persons.
|Organism||Onset Time After Ingesting||Signs & Symptoms||Duration||Food Sources|
|Bacillus cereus||10-16 hrs||Abdominal cramps, watery diarrhea, nausea||24-48 hours||Meats, stews, gravies, vanilla sauce|
|Campylobacter jejuni||2-5 days||Diarrhea, cramps, fever, and vomiting; diarrhea may be bloody||2-10 days||Raw and undercooked poultry, unpasteurized milk,contaminated water|
|12-72 hours||Vomiting, diarrhea, blurred vision, double vision, difficulty in swallowing, muscle weakness. Can result in respiratory failure and death||Variable||Improperly canned foods, especially home-canned vegetables, fermented fish, baked potatoes in aluminum foil|
|8–16 hours||Intense abdominal cramps, watery diarrhea||Usually 24
|Meats, poultry, gravy, dried or precooked foods, time and/or temperature-abused foods|
|Cryptosporidium||2-10 days||Diarrhea (usually watery), stomach cramps, upset stomach, slight fever||May be remitting and relapsing over weeks to months||Uncooked food or food contaminated by an ill food handler after cooking, contaminated drinking water|
|1-14 days, usually at least 1 week||Diarrhea (usually watery), loss of appetite, substantial loss of weight, stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, fatigue||May be remitting and relapsing over weeks to months||Various types of fresh produce (imported berries, lettuce, basil)|
|1-3 days||Watery diarrhea, abdominal cramps, some vomiting||3-7 or more days||Water or food contaminated with human feces|
|E. coli O157:H7||1-8 days||Severe (often bloody) diarrhea, abdominal pain and vomiting. Usually, little or no fever is present. More common in children 4 years or younger. Can lead to kidney failure.||5-10 days||Undercooked beef (especially hamburger), unpasteurized milk and juice, raw fruits and vegetables (e.g. sprouts), and contaminated water|
|Hepatitis A||28 days average (15-50 days)||Diarrhea, dark urine, jaundice, and flu-like symptoms, i.e., fever, headache, nausea, and abdominal pain||Variable, 2 weeks-3 months||Raw produce, contaminated drinking water, uncooked foods and cooked foods that are not reheated after contact with an infected food handler; shellfish from contaminated waters|
|9-48 hrs for gastro-intestinal symptoms, 2-6 weeks for invasive disease||Fever, muscle aches, and nausea or diarrhea. Pregnant women may have mild flu-like illness, and infection can lead to premature delivery or stillbirth. The elderly or immunocompromised patients may develop bacteremia or meningitis.||Variable||Unpasteurized milk, soft cheeses made with unpasteurized milk, ready-to-eat deli meats|
|Noroviruses||12-48 hrs||Nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramping, diarrhea, fever, headache. Diarrhea is more prevalent in adults, vomiting more common in children.||12-60 hrs||Raw produce, contaminated drinking water, uncooked foods and cooked foods that are not reheated after contact with an infected food handler; shellfish from contaminated waters|
|Salmonella||6-48 hours||Diarrhea, fever, abdominal cramps, vomiting||4-7 days||Eggs, poultry, meat, unpateurized milk or juice, cheese, contaminated raw fruits and vegetables|
|Shigella||4-7 days||Abdominal cramps, fever, and diarrhea. Stools may contain blood and mucus.||24-48 hrs||Raw produce, contaminated drinking water, uncooked foods and cooked foods that are not reheated after contact with an infected food handler|
|Staphylococcus aureus||1-6 hours||Sudden onset of severe nausea and vomiting. Abdominal cramps. Diarrhea and fever may be present.||24-48 hours||Unrefrigerated or improperly refrigerated meats, potato and egg salads, cream pastries|
|4-96 hours||Watery (occasionally bloody) diarrhea, abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, fever||2-5 days||Undercooked or raw seafood, such as shellfish|
|Vibrio vulnificus||1-7 days||Vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, bloodborne infection. Fever, bleeding within the skin, ulcers requiring surgical removal. Can be fatal to persons with liver disease or weakened immune systems.||2-8 days||Undercooked or raw seafood, such as shellfish (especially oysters)|