Foodborne Illness and Food Safety Education Month

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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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
Clostridium
botulinum
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
Clostridium
perfringens
8–16 hours Intense abdominal cramps, watery diarrhea Usually 24
hours
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
Cyclospora
cayetanensis
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)
E. coli
(Escherichia coli)

producing toxin
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
Listeria
monocytogenes
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
Vibrio
parahaemolyticus
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)