Food Poisoning and Foodborne Illnesses

Learn what food poisoning is, what causes it, and how to avoid it.

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Millions of people each year get sick from food poisoning, also called foodborne illness. In some cases of food poisoning, the sick person may have a legal claim. Before you can determine if you might have a valid legal claim (and the strengths and weaknesses of such a claim), you must first gain a basic understanding of foodborne illness -- what it is and how food can become contaminated. (To learn about legal claims based on food poisoning, read Nolo's article Lawsuits Involving Food Poisoning.)

What Is Food Poisoning?

Food poisoning -- formally referred to as foodborne illness -- is an umbrella term for any kind of illness caused by food that has been contaminated by disease-causing "microbes" or "pathogens" (scientific terms for microscopic things that you cannot see and that can make you very sick).

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a government agency that monitors outbreaks of food poisoning, estimates that there are 76 million cases of food poisoning in the United States each year, most of which go unreported. According to the CDC, there are between 400 and 500 reported outbreaks of foodborne illness each year. An outbreak refers to any situation where lots of people are made sick by a particular batch of contaminated food, such as ground beef burgers from a fast food outlet or packaged spinach supplied by a particular food processor.

Types of Food Poisoning

Although there are over 250 different types of food poisoning, they may be grouped into the following four broad categories:

  • bacteria (the most common type of food poisoning)
  • viruses (passed from one infected animal or person to another through food)
  • parasites (tiny creatures that make their home in your body), and
  • toxins (poisonous substances that accidentally end up in your food).

Symptoms of Food Poisoning

The symptoms of food poisoning may vary somewhat depending on the nature of the "poison," but generally may include:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • bloody stools
  • abdominal cramps
  • fever
  • headache, or
  • extreme exhaustion (or any combination of the above).

Food poisoning is often mistaken for the flu because of the similarity in symptoms and the fact that it is often hours or days after eating the contaminated food that the victim starts to feel sick.

The time delay between eating the contaminated food and the onset of symptoms can range from less than an hour to several days or even longer, depending on the nature of the "poison" and the amount ingested. This delay can make it difficult to pinpoint what food it was that made you ill, because you may have eaten several meals in the meantime.

Although the symptoms of these various types of food poisoning can be similar, they may require very different types of treatment. For example, antibiotics -- which can be very effective in treating certain kinds of bacteria-based foodborne illness -- may do nothing or even be dangerous in treating a virus-based foodborne illness.

How Does Food Become Contaminated?

Because the disease-causing microbes that cause food poisoning are invisible to the eye and nearly impossible to detect, it is easy to contaminate food without realizing you are doing so. As a result, there are many opportunities for accidental contamination. Here are a few ways that this can happen:

The slaughtering process. Disease-causing microbes are found in the intestines of healthy animals, and what may be harmless to the animal can make a human gravely ill. As a result, the process of slaughtering healthy animals for food regularly involves the release of disease-causing microbes into areas used for food processing.

Animal feces. Animal feces are another plentiful potential source of disease-causing microbes. In spite of all the sanitary precautions taken by the food and agriculture industries, disease-causing microbes sometimes accidentally find their way into the food supply.

Fertilizers, contaminated water, pesticides. Outbreaks of food poisoning have been traced to food processing plants, where the food has been tainted with disease-causing microbes found in manure-based fertilizers or contaminated water that has been used for irrigation or to wash produce. Pesticides are another danger.

Meal preparation. Food can also become contaminated during meal preparation. Although the disease-causing microbes commonly found in various forms of raw meat are usually killed through proper cooking, a plate, cutting board, or utensil that touches contaminated raw meat and is then used to serve the cooked food may re-contaminate it.

Improper food storage. Disease-causing microbes can also multiply and grow in improperly stored food or food left unrefrigerated for several hours.

Foods Commonly Associated with Food Poisoning

Although just about any food can become contaminated by secondary contact, the most common sources of disease-causing microbes come from animal products such as raw meat, poultry, eggs, shellfish, and un-pasteurized milk. This hazard is greater whenever a particular food product, such as ground beef, comes from many different animals, increasing the chances that a given batch will include some contaminated meat.

Although there are over 250 different kinds of food poisoning, two of the most common and feared are E. coli and Salmonella.

E. coli. E. coli is a type of bacteria commonly found in the intestines of healthy cattle, deer, goats, and sheep, and may be spread by way of the animal's feces or during slaughter. Though the most common way to become sick from E. coli is by eating undercooked ground beef, E. coli has also been the cause of food poisoning outbreaks traced to raw spinach and bean sprouts (presumably irrigated or washed with E. Coli-contaminated water).

Salmonella. Salmonella is another common bacteria, usually associated with animal products such as chicken and eggs. Salmonella may be spread inadvertently to other foods during meal preparation. Salmonella was the culprit in a recent food recall when it was found in a peanut processing plant with unsanitary conditions.

How to Avoid Food Poisoning

As a rule of thumb, most disease-causing microbes can be eliminated by proper cooking. When preparing meals, any plates or utensils that come into contact with raw meat or eggs or other animal products should be thoroughly washed before re-use.

Although washing certain foods, such as leafy produce, is generally recommended, keep in mind that washing does not always rid contaminated food of all disease-causing microbes; washing contaminated spinach, for example, may actually spread disease-causing microbes to kitchen surfaces and other foods.

When eating out at a restaurant, you are more or less at the mercy of whatever precautions are taken in the restaurant's kitchen, though most states have some sort of public health board that carries out routine restaurant inspections, often requiring restaurants to display their health inspection evaluation in a prominent location.

If you are a victim of food poisoning and think you may have a legal claim, consulting with an attorney may help you sort out the medical and legal issues as well as provide some insight into the strengths (if any) of your claim. For help in finding a lawyer, read Nolo's article Finding a Personal Injury Lawyer. Or, go to Nolo's Lawyer Directory for a list of personal injury attorneys in your geographical area (click "Types of Cases" and "Work History" to find out about the lawyer's experience, if any, with food poisoning cases).

To find out how to make the best case for yourself and win your personal injury claim, read How to Win Your Personal Injury Claim, by Joseph Matthews (Nolo).

Updated by: , J.D.

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