What Is Foodborne Illness?
Foodborne illness, or food poisoning, often presents itself with flu-like symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or fever, so many people may not recognize that the illness may be caused by bacteria or other pathogens in food.
Thousands of types of bacteria are naturally present in our environment. Not all bacteria cause diseases in humans. For example, some bacteria are used beneficially in making cheese and yogurt.
Bacteria that cause disease are called pathogens. When certain pathogens enter the food supply, they can cause foodborne illness. Millions of cases of foodborne illness occur each year and most of them can be prevented. Proper cooking or processing of food destroys the bacteria.
Age and physical condition place some persons at higher risk than others, no matter what type of bacteria is implicated. Infants and young children, pregnant women and their unborn babies, and older adults are at higher risk for foodborne illness, as well as people with weakened immune systems (such as those with HIV/AIDS, cancer, diabetes, kidney disease, and transplant patients). Some persons may become ill after ingesting only a few harmful bacteria; others may remain symptom free after ingesting thousands.
How Bacteria Get in the Food
Bacteria may be present on products when you purchase them. Plastic-wrapped boneless chicken and ground meat, for example, were once part of live chickens or cattle. Raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs are not sterile. Neither is fresh produce such as lettuce, tomatoes, sprouts, or melons. Food, including safely cooked and ready-to-eat food, can become cross-contaminated with bacteria transferred from raw products, meat juices or other contaminated products, or from food handlers with poor personal hygiene.
In Case of Suspected Foodborne Illness
Preserve the evidence. If a portion of the suspect food is available, wrap it securely, mark “DANGER,” and freeze it. Save all the packaging materials, such as cans or cartons. Write down the food type, the date and other identifying marks on the package, as well as the time consumed, and when the onset of symptoms occurred. Save any identical unopened products.
Seek treatment if necessary. If the victim is in an “at-risk” group, seek medical care immediately. Likewise, if symptoms persist or are severe (such as bloody diarrhea, excessive nausea and vomiting, or high temperature), call your doctor.