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Food Poisoning

Food poisoning is caused by eating food which has been contaminated. It is usually caused by infectious organisms such as bacteria, viruses, parasites or by their toxins. Symptoms can start within a few hours or may take days or even weeks to develop.

Food poisoning, also called food borne illness affects 1 in 6 people every year, though many people may be unaware of the cause of their illness.  Most cases of food poisoning are due to contamination from microorganisms. Contamination can occur at any point during the food handling and production process.  It can also occur at home from improper hygiene or cooking practices.

Symptoms of food poisoning usually involve gastrointestinal complaints, which can range from mild to severe.  In some cases, toxins from food borne illness can affect other parts of the body. Some types of food poisoning may be life-threatening, particularly for certain groups of people such as the very young or old, and pregnant women.

Types of Food Poisoning

The term food poisoning describes any type of food contamination which creates illness.  This may be from chemical substances but more commonly involve infectious organisms. Bacteria or toxins created by other microorganisms are the most common types of food borne illness, but infectious food poisoning can also be caused by parasites, viruses and fungal organisms.  The most common, well-known or deadly food borne illnesses have usually come from Botulism, E.coli, Listeria, and Salmonella, but other organisms may also be harmful.

Common types of food poisoning include:

Most Common
ContaminantOnset of symptomsFoods affected and means of transmission
Clostridium botulinum toxin (Botulism)12 to 72 hoursImproperly canned foods (home and commercial), smoked or salted fish, foods kept at warm temperatures for too long.  Opening a contaminated can may produce a “hissing” noise due to gas formation.
Escherichia coli (E. coli) O157:H71 to 8 daysBeef that was contaminated with feces during slaughter, vegetables contaminated at grower, unpasteurized milk and water contaminated with raw manure which can be in any food product.
Listeria1 to 90 daysHot dogs, luncheon meats, unpasteurized milk and cheeses, foods with dry dairy product ingredients and unwashed raw produce like melons which are contaminated by rind or peel.  Survives refrigeration and in some case, freezing.
Salmonella1 to 3 daysRaw or contaminated meat, poultry, milk, or egg yolks. Can be spread to vegetables or other foods by equipment like knives, cutting surfaces or an infected food handler.

Less Common

Campylobacter2 to 5 daysMeat and poultry contaminated with animal feces from inadequately cleaned machinery, unpasteurized milk and contaminate water.
Clostridium perfringens8 to 16 hoursMeats, stews and gravies mainly spread when serving dishes do not keep foot at hot enough temperature.
Giardia lamblia1 to 2 weeksRaw produce and contaminated water. May be spread by an infected food handler.
Hepatitis A28 daysRaw produce and shellfish from contaminated water. May be spread by an infected food handler.
Noroviruses (Norwalk-like viruses)12 to 48 hoursRaw produce and shellfish from contaminated water. May be spread by an infected food handler.
Rotavirus1 to 3 daysRaw produce. May be spread by an infected food handler.
Shigella24 to 48 hoursSeafood and raw produce. May be spread by an infected food handler.
Staphylococcus aureus1 to 6 hoursMeats, prepared salads, cream sauces and filled pastries. May be spread by hand contact, coughing and sneezing.
Vibrio vulnificus1 to 7 daysRaw or undercooked oysters, mussels, clams, and whole scallops. May be spread through contaminated seawater.

Symptoms of Food Poisoning

Most cases of food borne illness cause by infectious organisms will cause gastrointestinal symptoms which may range from mild to severe.  Common symptoms include:

  • Abdominal cramping
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Excessive or painful gas/flatulence
  • Diarrhea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Mild fever
  • Weakness
  • Headache

Signs and symptoms may start within a few hours after eating contaminated food but may begin days or even weeks later. Sickness caused by food poisoning generally lasts from a few hours to several days.  If food poisoning is suspected, antidiarrheal medication should not be used except under the supervision of a doctor.

In some cases, food poisoning may be life-threatening.  Serious food poisoning symptoms which warrant immediate medical attention include:

  • Diarrhea which persists for more than 3 days
  • Fever higher than 100.4
  • Difficulty with sight or speech
  • Bloody urine or feces
  • Symptoms of dehydration

Seek medical treatment immediately for any serious food poisoning symptom.

Commercial Responsibilities

The public relies on commercial food processors and producers to maintain food safety practices at all times.  State and federal health and safety authorities have regulations regarding safe food handling processes which must be followed.  Food growers, processors, packagers and handlers may be liable for any injuries which occur due to improper practices.

In the event of a contamination occurrence, a recall should be issued for any food product that may be affected and the food handling facility or establishment should be closed to further production until the problem has been identified and eliminated.

Tips to Prevent Food Poisoning at Home

While some food borne illnesses cannot be detected at home, there are some safety precautions that can be taken to minimize the risk of illness.

Tips include:

  • Always wash hands in warm soapy water for at least 20 seconds
  • Rinse fruits and vegetables before using.  Even foods with rind or peel and foods that are “prewashed” should be rinsed at home
  • Wash the tops of canned goods before opening
  • Avoid touching face, sneezing or coughing while preparing food
  • Avoid cross contamination by cutting vegetables separately from meat products.  Cut vegetables first when possible.
  • Wash cutting boards, knives and other utensils immediately
  • Cook meat and egg products thoroughly before serving.  Use a meat thermometer to be sure meats are safe.
    • Cook beef, pork, lamb and fish to 145 F
    • Cook ground beef, pork or lamb to 160 F
    • Cook poultry (chicken, duck, turkey) to 165 F
    • Cook eggs until no visible liquid remains
  • Keep food at appropriate temperature (hot foods hot and cold foods cold).  Put food to be saved in refrigerator within 2 hours after cooking, sooner if it is hot outside
  • Foods should be marinated or thawed in refrigerator
  • Marinade should not be reused unless cooked
  • Do not use sponges for repeated counter wiping or washing unless sterilized between uses.

Food safety practices can reduce the chance for a contamination event occurring in the home.

In Case of Food Poisoning

Most case of food poisoning are mild and will go away with time.  Other cases may be much more serious or even life-threatening. Certain groups are more vulnerable including children, the elderly and pregnant women.  Women who are pregnant who believe they have a case of food poisoning should seek medical attention as some food borne illnesses may be harmful to the developing fetus.

For mild to moderate symptoms, ensuring that the victim remains hydrated is the most important factor.  This may occur through beverages or clear soups as the patient can tolerate. In some cases, oral rehydration solutions similar to “Pedialyte” may be recommended.  Food can be introduced as the patient can tolerate. Antidiarrheal medication should not be given unless advised by a doctor.

If any of the following symptoms occur, medical treatment should be obtained as soon as possible.

  • Frequent vomiting and inability to keep fluids down
  • Blood in vomit or stool
  • Diarrhea that persists for more than 3 days
  • Severe abdominal cramping or pain
  • Temperature higher than 100.4 F
  • Symptoms of dehydration – excessive thirst, dry mouth, little or not urination, dizziness, weakness, muscle cramping, palpitations, headache
  • Blurry vision, hearing abnormalities, inability or difficulty speaking

In extreme cases, food borne illnesses can be life-threatening.  Seek medical treatment immediately if any severe symptoms occur.

Medical treatment for severe cases of food poisoning may include administration of fluids through intravenous injection, use of antibiotic medication and supportive measures, usually in a healthcare setting like a hospital.  Depending on how severe the illness is, treatment may be short term or may last for days, weeks or months. Severe food borne illness should be reported to local or state health authorities.

Foodborne Illness Lawsuits

Food borne illnesses that are caused by commercial food production facilities or restaurants can affect a large number of unsuspecting victims.  In some cases, illness may occur suddenly, but other cases may not develop for days, weeks or even months. Food poisoning can be life-threatening or require costly medical treatments.

When it appears that a food manufacturer has failed to ensure safe food production or has failed to adequately respond to a contamination event, many more people may be harmed.  Victims of commercial-based food poisoning may be eligible for compensation for medical costs, lost wages, pain and suffering and should to seek legal advice.

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