September is National Food Safety Education Month (NFSM). It is a great time to heighten your knowledge about food safety and causes of foodborne illnesses. Join the conversation on social media by using #NFSM.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that because of foodborne illness 76 million people fall ill, 325,000 are hospitalized and 5,000 Americans die annually. Foodborne illness also cause billions of dollars in healthcare-related and industry costs annually.
Consumers directly affect the safety of foods through their food handling and preparation practices. Several national and international reports have noted that poor hygienic practices in the home are responsible for between 30-40% of food-borne illness.
It is thus important that everyone be consistent in practicing safe food principles and handling procedures to prevent incidents of foodborne illness – and education is key.
Causes of Foodborne Illness
Food poisoning, also called foodborne illness, is illness caused by eating contaminated food. Infectious organisms — including bacteria, viruses and parasites — or their toxins are the most common causes of food poisoning.
Infectious organisms or their toxins can contaminate food at any point of processing or production. Contamination can also occur at home if food is incorrectly handled or cooked.
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Foodborne illness can also be transferred from one host to another by foods, contaminated surfaces or the vomit or feces of an infected person. Viruses are difficult to kill, as they are resistant to heat and cold.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 20 million people get sick each year from norovirus, making it one of the leading causes of foodborne illness.
Many bacterial, viral or parasitic agents cause food poisoning. The following table shows some of the possible contaminants, when you might start to feel symptoms and common ways the organism is spread.
|Contaminant||Onset of symptoms||Foods affected and means of transmission|
|Campylobacter||2 to 5 days||Meat and poultry. Contamination occurs during processing if animal feces contact meat surfaces. Other sources include unpasteurized milk and contaminated water.|
|Clostridium botulinum||12 to 72 hours||Home-canned foods with low acidity, improperly canned commercial foods, smoked or salted fish, potatoes baked in aluminum foil, and other foods kept at warm temperatures for too long.|
|Clostridium perfringens||8 to 16 hours||Meats, stews and gravies. Commonly spread when serving dishes don’t keep food hot enough or food is chilled too slowly.|
|Escherichia coli (E. coli) O157:H7||1 to 8 days||Beef contaminated with feces during slaughter. Spread mainly by undercooked ground beef. Other sources include unpasteurized milk and apple cider, alfalfa sprouts, and contaminated water.|
|Giardia lamblia||1 to 2 weeks||Raw, ready-to-eat produce and contaminated water. Can be spread by an infected food handler.|
|Hepatitis A||28 days||Raw, ready-to-eat produce and shellfish from contaminated water. Can be spread by an infected food handler.|
|Listeria||9 to 48 hours||Hot dogs, luncheon meats, unpasteurized milk and cheeses, and unwashed raw produce. Can be spread through contaminated soil and water.|
|Noroviruses (Norwalk-like viruses)||12 to 48 hours||Raw, ready-to-eat produce and shellfish from contaminated water. Can be spread by an infected food handler.|
|Rotavirus||1 to 3 days||Raw, ready-to-eat produce. Can be spread by an infected food handler.|
|Salmonella||1 to 3 days||Raw or contaminated meat, poultry, milk, or egg yolks. Survives inadequate cooking. Can be spread by knives, cutting surfaces or an infected food handler.|
|Shigella||24 to 48 hours||Seafood and raw, ready-to-eat produce. Can be spread by an infected food handler.|
|Staphylococcus aureus||1 to 6 hours||Meats and prepared salads, cream sauces, and cream-filled pastries. Can be spread by hand contact, coughing and sneezing.|
|Vibrio vulnificus||1 to 7 days||Raw oysters and raw or undercooked mussels, clams, and whole scallops. Can be spread through contaminated seawater.|
People at Higher Risk for Foodborne Illness
If you’re part of what is called an “at-risk” or “vulnerable” population, a foodborne illness can be extremely dangerous. What makes these populations more at risk? In many cases, the problem lies with the immune system. The immune system is the body’s natural defense system against “foreign invasion” by pathogens (bacteria or viruses that can cause disease). In healthy people, a properly functioning immune system usually fights off harmful pathogens readily.
Which populations are most at risk? Some of these groups of people include:
- Cancer Patients
- Children under Five Years of Age
- Diabetes Patients
- HIV/AIDS Patients
- Older Adults
- Persons with Autoimmune Diseases
- Pregnant Women
Foodborne Illness Symptoms
Food poisoning symptoms vary with the source of contamination. Most types of food poisoning cause one or more of the following signs and symptoms:
- Watery or bloody diarrhea
- Abdominal pain and cramps
Signs and symptoms may start within hours after eating the contaminated food, or they may begin days or even weeks later. Sickness caused by food poisoning generally lasts from a few hours to several days. If symptoms persists, a person should see medical attention.
Test Your Food Safety Knowledge
Do you know what food poisoning is? Interested in learning more about the latest in food safety best practices?
Additional Food Safety Education Resources
General Food Safety
- Food Safety Web Features
- Food Safety Infographics
- Be Food Safe: Protect Yourself from Food Poisoning
- Fight BAC! Partnership for Food Safety Education
- FDA: Food Safety: It’s Especially Important for At-Risk Groups
- FDA: Safe Food Handling: What You Need to Know
- FDA: Refrigerator Thermometers: Cold Facts About Food Safety
- USDA: At-Risk Populations
- CDC Food Safety Education Month
- CDC Food Safety
- CDC’s Winnable Battle on Food Safety – snapshot of the context and background for CDC’s food safety priority area, as well as descriptions of some of the systems, policy, and programmatic interventions pursued by CDC and our public health partners at the federal, state and local levels
- Estimates of Foodborne Illness in the United States – detailed information on the estimates and methods of foodborne illness in the US
- Attribution of Foodborne Illness, 1998-2008 – study provides a comprehensive set of estimates available to answer the question: which foods make us ill?
- Food Safety – CDC Food Safety homepage
- Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network
Food and Drug Administration
- FDA Food Code – FDA model that assists food control jurisdictions at all levels of government by providing them with a scientifically sound technical and legal basis for regulating the retail and food service segment of the industry
- Foodborne Illness and Contaminants – FDA guidelines for protection against foodborne illness
- Foodsafety.gov (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) – information about food safety
United States Department of Agriculture
- Food Safety and Inspection Service – information about food safety and food inspections
- Nutrient Data Laboratory – tool to search for information about food