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Foodborne Illness FAQ

Foodborne illness can strike anyone at any time, but understanding how food poisoning happens is the best defense. Most foodborne illness is cause by bacteria, but some are caused by viruses or other organisms. When food poisoning causes injury, and the manufacturer or distributor fails to take responsibility, they may face legal action for selling defective products.

The following are answers to frequently asked questions regarding foodborne illness. See FindLaw's Dangerous Foods section for additional resources. 

Are some foods more likely to cause foodborne illness than others?

Almost any food can become contaminated if mishandled. However, foods rich in protein, such as meat, poultry, fish, and seafood, are most susceptible for two reasons: 1) protein-rich foods tend to be of animal origin, 2) animal foods are rich in protein that bacteria break down into amino acids, which are an important nutrient source to some bacteria. Also, because bacteria need moisture to survive and reproduce, they thrive in foods with high moisture content. These include starchy, egg-rich foods and cream-based foods, such as potato or pasta salads, cream-based soups, and custard or cream pies.

How sick can I get from eating contaminated food?

Your age,general health, and the amount of contaminated food eaten are all factors in determining how sick you can get. The most common symptoms are diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain, but you may not necessarily get all the symptoms.People with weak immune symptoms that are less able to fight off the bacteria can become very ill and even die from foodborne illness.

What are the symptoms of foodborne illness?

Common symptoms include diarrhea, abdominal cramping, fever, headache, vomiting,severe exhaustion, and sometimes blood or pus in the stools. Symptoms vary according to the type of bacteria and the by the amount of contaminants eaten.

In rare instances, symptoms may develop as early as a half hour after eating contaminated food. Typically,they do not develop for several days or weeks.Symptoms of viral or parasitic illnesses may not appear for several weeks after exposure. Symptoms generally lost only a day or two, but in some cases can persist for 7 to 10 days. For most healthy people, foodborne illnesses are neither long-lasting nor life-threatening.However, they can be severe in the very young, the very old, and in people with certain diseases and conditions.

Can the symptoms of foodborne illness be mistaken for the flu?

Yes. Foodborne illness often shows itself as flu-like symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or fever, so many people may not recognize that the illness is caused by bacteria or other pathogens in food.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC), many intestinal illnesses, commonly referred to as stomach flu, are actually caused by food-borne pathogens.People often do not associate these illnesses with food because the onset of symptoms often occurs 2 or more days after the contaminated food was eaten.

What should you do if you have a problem with a food product?

Separate government agencies are responsible for protected different areas of the food supply. Check out FoodSafety.gov to find out where to go for specific information or to file a complaint.

Is irradiated food safe? How is it labeled?

In December 2005, the FDA approved treating red meat with doses of radiation, a process commonly called irradiation. This process can control E. coli O157:H7 and several other disease-causing microorganisms. Irradiated foods sold in stores must include labeling with either the statement "treated with radiation"or "treated by irradiation" and the international symbol for irradiation, the radura. If only containing irradiated ingredients, the food does not need to describe these ingredients as irradiated. Irradiation labeling does not apply to restaurant foods.

The FDA has evaluated irradiation safety and has found the process to be safe and effective for many foods. FDA scientists concluded, in its most recent review, that irradiation reduces or eliminates pathogenic bacteria, insects and parasites.

Why is it important to use a cooking thermometer?

Bacteria grow slowly at low temperatures and multiply rapidly at mid-range temperatures. To be safe, food must be cooked to an internal temperature high enough to destroy harmful bacteria. Using a meat thermometer is a reliable way to ensure that food has reached the proper temperature. Thermometers must be used properly and calibrated correctly. Thermometers should generally be placed in the thickest part of the food, away from bone,fat or gristle. According to the USDA,temperature is the only way to gauge whether food is sufficiently cooked. Looking only at the color of the food can be misleading. For instance, freezing and thawing may influence a meat's tendency to brown prematurely.

Why is raw milk dangerous?

Raw milk may harbor a host of disease-causing organisms (pathogens), such as the bacteria Campylobacter, Escherichia, Listeria, Salmonella, Yersinia, and Brucella. Common symptoms of foodborne illness from many of these types of bacteria include diarrhea, stomach cramps, fever, headache, vomiting, and exhaustion. The pasteurization process uses heat to destroy harmful bacteria without significantly changing milk's nutritional value or flavor. It destroys bacteria that cause spoilage, thereby extending milk's shelf life. Milk pasteurization can prevent tuberculosis, diphtheria, polio, salmonellosis, strep throat, scarlet fever, and typhoid fever.Milk becomes contaminated when animals shed bacteria into the milk. Cows, goats, and sheep carry bacteria in their intestines that do not make them sick but can cause illness in people who consume their untreated milk or milk products.

If spores can survive cooking, freezing, and some sanitizing measures, how can spores be prevented from the start?

Do not hold food in the danger zone, the temperature range in which most bacteria can grow. This range is usually below 40ºF (4ºC). Some pathogenic bacteria can grow at 32ºF (0ºC) or above 140ºF (60ºC). Spores can germinate into pathogenic bacteria in the danger zone and multiply in food.For example, any cooked dish will generally have all the bacteria killed, but not the spores. Throw out any foods you have doubts about.

Spore growth is also relevant to improperly canned foods. The FDA makes sure that canned foods are processed in a safe manner. Consumers should be careful not to buy cans with dents, bulges, leaks, or rust spots.

Do all toxins in food survive the cooking process?

No. For instance, the botulism toxin caused by Clostridium botulinum can be inactivated by cooking. Boiling food for 10 minutes eliminates this toxin. However, many other toxins are heat stable. For example,Staphylococcus can produce toxins that are not destroyed at high cooking temperatures. To prevent toxins from developing in food, do not leave food sitting out at room temperature for more than 2 hours. On a hot day (90F or higher), food should not sit out for more than 1 hour.

Is it true that some viruses are resistant to heat and cold? If so, what food safety precautions should consumers take?

Foodborne viruses are not especially resistant to heat. Most virus outbreaks are the result of foods that are not cooked, or are contaminated after cooking. Many viruses are in very stable in the environment, but cooking is good at denaturing the proteins that protect the virus. That is why it is important to cook food, including seafood, thoroughly before eating it. On the other hand, it is true that viruses are resistant to cold. Chilling or freezing does not eliminate viruses.Good agricultural and manufacturing practices along the farm-to-table continuum are needed to keep food from being contaminated by pathogens in the first place.

What is the difference between viruses and bacteria?

Viruses are the smallest and simplest life form known.They are 10 to 100 times smaller than bacteria. The biggest difference between viruses and bacteria is that viruses must have a living host like a plant or animal to multiply, while most bacteria can grow on non-living surfaces.

Also, unlike bacteria, which attack the body like soldiers mounting a pitched battle, viruses are guerilla fighters. They do not attack so much as infiltrate. They literally invade human cells and turn the cell's genetic material from its normal function to producing the virus itself.

Additionally, bacteria carry all the machinery needed for their growth and multiplication, while viruses carry mainly information (for example, DNA or RNA, packaged in a protein and/or membranous coat). Viruses harness the host cell's machinery to reproduce. In a sense, viruses are not truly "living," but are essentially information (DNA or RNA) that float around until they encounter a suitable living host and cause foodborne illness.

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