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Food Poisoning: A Legal FAQ

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What is food poisoning?

People get food poisoning (also commonly called “foodborne illness”) by eating food containing bacteria or viruses. There are many, many different ways this can happen. Food can become infected at the farm, contaminated during packaging, exposed while en route to the store, or improperly stored or cooked in a home or restaurant. The exact cause of food poisoning can be hard to determine – often symptoms appear days after eating the contaminated food.

People who become sick after consuming contaminated food often suffer from symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, watery diarrhea, abdominal pain, cramps, and fever. These symptoms can resemble the stomach flu and other illnesses, making food poisoning difficult to detect. Most instances of food poisoning are relatively minor and people recover after a week or more. More serious cases can require hospitalization and lead to serious injuries.

Q: What are some common sources of food poisoning?

Bacteria and viruses in food are the main cause food poisoning. Some specific bacteria and viruses are often associated with food poisoning and feature in periodic outbreaks. These include e. coli, salmonella, norovirus, and listeria. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also publishes a list of frequent foodborne disease causing organisms for the public.

Bacteria and viruses can contaminate almost any kind of food. However, there are some foods associated with food poisoning more than others. Meats, poultry, eggs, shellfish, dairy products, and leafy green vegetables are often pointed to as at risk foods. Recent outbreaks of e. coli infected spinach, salmonella-containing meats and eggs, and listeria-containing milk and cheese products have made headlines. Prevention tends to be the best cure. Properly refrigerating, cooking, and storing food can significantly reduce the risk of food poisoning.

Q: What injuries are associated with food poisoning?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is the federal agency responsible for fighting disease nationwide. According to the CDC, an estimated 48 million Americans suffer from food poisoning each year. This amounts to around one in six Americans. The vast majority of incidents see people develop nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, cramps, and fever. For the most part, food poisoning will pass on its own after a week or more.

Some people suffer more severe injuries from food poisoning. Food poisoning hospitalizes 128,000 people each year and annually kills an estimated 3,000 people. Infants, children, the elderly, and people with weak immune systems are most susceptible to developing complications or experiencing severe symptoms. Serious cases can require hospitalization, a longer recovery period, and medication. This can impose financial hardship on people.

Q: Can people who suffer from food poisoning sue?

Yes. In theory, anyone who suffers from food poisoning can sue those responsible. This can include a restaurant that serves a dish causing food poisoning, or a food company or store that sells contaminated meat or dairy products. A personal injury lawsuit or product liability lawsuit may be able to recover compensation for medical costs, hospital bills, lost income, and other damages. Lawsuits are more common when there has been a well-documented contamination of the food supply.

Q: What are some practical concerns about filing a food poisoning lawsuit?

There are some practical difficulties to filing a food poisoning lawsuit. First, people often become ill days after eating contaminated food. Identifying food poisoning and determining the culinary culprit after the fact can be difficult tasks. Second, a lawsuit must prove that someone is liable, or legally responsible, for an injury. This can be difficult with food poisoning, as a plaintiff may struggle to produce the food in question and prove that it is contaminated. Finally, the majority of food poisoning cases aren’t serious enough to make the time and cost of a lawsuit worthwhile.

Some cases may be able to address all of these concerns. Clear-cut cases of restaurant dishes or packaged food products causing food poisoning do happen. When multiple people suffer from food poisoning, it can be easier to prove that the food was contaminated. More severe injuries requiring hospitalization may make a lawsuit financially worthwhile. Cases where people die from food poisoning may warrant a wrongful death lawsuit seeking to recover compensation for surviving family members.

Next Steps

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