Types of Food Poisoning

Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors.

When you get sick from food contaminated with bacteria or other pathogens, it is referred to as "food poisoning" or "foodborne illness." Some types of food poisoning cause vomiting and diarrhea temporarily, while others can be lethal (especially to young children and the elderly). At least 250 different kinds of food poisoning have been documented, but the most common ones are e. coli; listeria; salmonella; and norovirus, which is commonly called "stomach flu."

This article provides an overview of these particular varieties of foodborne illnesses, with links to more detailed information about each. See Foods Most Associated with Food Poisoning and How Does Food Become Contaminated? to learn more. Additionally, you can check out Foodborne Illnesses: What You Need to Know from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for an extensive list of illnesses.

E. Coli

The full name of the particular type of E. coli that causes illness is Escherichia coli 0157:H7. Most strains of e. coli are harmless and found throughout nature, while the strain that causes illness in humans is found in the intestines of healthy livestock (such as cattle, goats, and sheep). E. coli usually is spread during the slaughtering process, but also can get into raw milk at dairies and can even contaminate nearby vegetable or fruit crops. Under-cooked meat and contaminated raw vegetables are the main sources of E. coli poisoning, along with person-to-person contact in households and child care centers.

Listeria (Listeriosis)

The bacterium Listeria monocytogenes can cause a serious infection called listeriosis, which mostly affects newborn babies, pregnant women, and adults with significantly weakened immune systems. Listeria can be found in the soil and water and can be carried by healthy farm animals as well. Uncooked (or under-cooked) meats and vegetables, as well as some processed foods prior to packaging, can carry the organism. Babies can contract listerioris from their mothers before birth.


Often called "stomach flu," norovirus refers to a group of viruses found primarily in the stool or vomit of infected individuals. Norovirus is highly contagious but not lethal and usually passes after one or two days. Infected food-service workers who fail to wash their hands after using the bathroom, and then handle food or touch kitchen surfaces, often spread the illness. Touching infected surfaces, including other people, and then touching one's mouth is another way to contract the virus.

Salmonella (Salmonellosis)

The family of bacterium referred to as Salmonella enterica, which includes six known subspecies, causes an illness known as salmonellosis. Salmonella can be found in raw chicken eggs; spoiled or mishandled milk; reptiles; tainted produce; and poultry, pork, or beef. A more serious but less common form of salmonellosis can lead to typhoid fever, which can be fatal. Most people recover after four to seven days without treatment, but can be deadly if it gets into the blood stream (in which case antibiotics are necessary).

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