Foodborne illnesses, or food poisoning, are illnesses caused by eating food contaminated with infectious organisms and their toxins. Most foodborne illnesses are infections caused by a variety of bacteria, viruses, and parasites. Harmful toxins and chemicals also can contaminate foods and cause foodborne illnesses. Food can become contaminated at any point of processing or production or even at home if food is incorrectly handled or prepared.
Mild food poisoning is quite common. Symptoms of mild food poisoning can include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain and cramps or fever beginning within hours of eating the contaminated food. In these cases, symptoms usually resolve in a day or two without treatment. Sometimes, however, food poisoning symptoms can begin days or even weeks later.
The following is a list of common contaminants:
Campylobacter – Symptoms of Campylobacter contamination usually begin within 2-5 days. This bacterium can be found in meat and poultry that has come in contact with animal feces during processing, in unpasteurized milk, or in contaminated water.
Clostridium botulinum – Symptoms of Clostridium botulinum contamination usually begin within 12-72 hours. This bacterium can be present in home-canned goods 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. Although rare, Clostridium botulinum has the ability to produce a neurotoxin which causes botulism, leading to difficulty breathing, muscle paralysis, and even death. If you or someone you know has symptoms of botulism, see your doctor or go to the emergency room immediately.
Clostridium perfringens – This bacterium is found in meats, stews and gravies and is commonly spread when serving dishes don’t keep food hot enough or food is chilled too slowly. It is one of the most common types of foodborne illnesses and causes diarrhea and abdominal cramping that typically begins within 8-12 hours and lasts for less than 24.
Escherichia coli (E. coli) – E. coli is a large group of mostly harmless bacteria. Illness-causing E. Coli symptoms begin within 1-8 days. It can occur in beef contaminated with feces during slaughter and is mainly spread by undercooked ground beef. It can also be found in unpasteurized milk and apple cider, alfalfa sprouts, and contaminated water. Some Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) strains cause severe illnesses, including hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) which is a type of kidney failure.
Giardia – Giardia is a parasite that causes diarrhea that can last 1-2 weeks. This parasite can be found in raw, ready-to-eat produce and contaminated water. It can also be spread by an infected food handler.
Hepatitis A – Hepatitis A is virus that causes a highly contagious liver infection. Symptoms of Hepatitis A typically begin 4 weeks after consumption. It can be found in raw, ready-to-eat produce and shellfish from contaminated water. It can also be spread by a food handler. Mild cases of hepatitis A don’t require treatment. In rare cases, it can cause a sudden loss of liver function, especially in older adults or people with chronic liver diseases. Hepatitis A can be prevented through vaccination.
Listeria – Listeria is a bacterium sometimes found in hot dogs, lunch meats, unpasteurized milk and cheese or unwashed raw produce. It can be spread through contaminated soil and water. Listeriosis is a rare but serious infection caused by Listeria that primarily affects pregnant women, newborns, older adults and people with weakened immune symptoms. Most people with invasive listeriosis require hospital care.
Noroviruses – Noroviruses are very contagious viruses that cause vomiting and diarrhea. Symptoms usually begin within 12-48 hours and occurs in raw, ready-to-eat produce and shellfish from contaminated water. It spreads easily and quickly from infected people to others.
Rotavirus – Rotavirus is a contagious virus that can cause gastroenteritis that most commonly affects infants and young children. Symptoms begin within 1-3 days and the virus can be found in raw, ready-to-eat produce or spread by an infected food handler. Rotavirus vaccines are very effective at preventing rotavirus disease.
Salmonella – Salmonella is a bacterium that causes an infection called salmonellosis. Salmonella is commonly spread by raw or contaminated meat, poultry, mild or egg yolks and survives inadequate cooking. It can also be spread by knives, cutting surfaces or an infected food handler. Symptoms begin within 1-3 days and include diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps. Most people recover without treatment in four to seven days, but the elderly, infants, and those with impaired immune systems can develop severe illness or even death if the infection spreads from the intestines to the blood stream and is not treated promptly with antibiotics. The Center for Disease Control estimates that Salmonella found in food sources cause about 1 million illnesses, 19,000 hospitalizations and 380 deaths each year.
Shigella – Shigellosis is an infectious disease caused by a group of bacteria called Shigella. Symptoms can include diarrhea, fever, and stomach cramps and begin a day or two after exposure, usually resolving within 5-7 days. Shigella can be found in seafood and raw, ready-to-eat produce or spread by an infected food handler. Shigella is very contagious, and young children, travelers, and those with weakened immune systems are most likely to get shigellosis.
Staphylococcus aureus – Staphylococcus aureus (Staph) is a type of bacteria found on the skin and nose of about 25% of health people and animals. It usually does not cause illness, but it has the ability to make toxins that can cause food poisoning. It can be found in meats and prepared salads, puddings, pastries and sandwiches. Although Staph can be killed by cooking, the toxins it produces cannot. Staph toxins are fast acting and typically develop within 30 minutes to 6 hours and subside after a day. Severe illness from ingesting Staph is rare, but Staph infections contracted in healthcare settings can be serious and even fatal.
Vibrio vulnificus – Vibrio bacteria live in some coastal waters. About a dozen Vibrio species cause vibriosis, an infection caused by ingesting raw or undercooked shellfish or when a wound is exposed to brackish or salt water. People with compromised immune systems are more likely to get vibriosis. About 80% of infections occur between May and October, when water temperatures are warmer. Symptoms include diarrhea and abdominal cramping, nausea, vomiting, fever and chills that begin within 24 hours of ingestion and last about 3 days.
When two or more people get the same illness from the same source, it is considered a foodborne outbreak. Public officials investigate these outbreaks to control them and prevent others from contracting illness.
In Florida, the Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR) regulates restaurants, most food trucks, caterers, and most public food service events. The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services regulates whole-sale food operations, convenience stores, grocery stores, food processing operations, food storage/warehouse operations and non-alcoholic beverage operations (such as coffee shops). The Department of Health regulates food service establishments located in institutional settings (such as schools, and detention facilities), civic and fraternal organizations, bars and lounges that don’t prepare food, and movie theaters with limited food service.
The DBPR can also stop the sale and supervise the destruction of any particular food or food product when it is determined that such product represents a threat to public safety or welfare. If the establishment is notified that a food product has potentially contributed to any foodborne illness, the establishment must maintain the product so that it can be examined, sampled and seized or destroyed.
If you believe you or someone you know has contracted a foodborne illness, it is extremely important to file a complaint, which can be done here.
If you contract a severe illness as a result of food poisoning, you may have a claim against the restaurant, supermarket, distributor, processor or producer. Contact us today for a free initial in-office consultation or contact us online. Our firm handles food poisoning, foodborne illness, and food safety cases in Wesley Chapel, Tallahassee, Tampa Bay and throughout Florida.