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Food Safety

The Causes of Foodborne Illness

Because harmful microorganisms are present everywhere in the environment, any food can become contaminated if not properly handled before consumption. Consider these facts:


  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists four sources of foodborne illness: disease-causing bacteria, viruses, parasites and toxins. A few of these are very common and account for the majority of reported illness cases.
  • Half of all foodborne outbreaks reported to CDC have no identifiable cause. However, most of the outbreaks are due to microorganisms in food. At least 30 pathogens are commonly associated with foodborne illness.
  • CDC has targeted four bacterial pathogens - E. coli O157:H7, Salmonella Enteritidis, Listeria monocytogenes and Campylobacter jejuni - as those of greatest concern. Also of concern to CDC are other bacterial pathogens, such as Vibrio vulnificus and Yersinia enterocolitica, Clostridium perfringens and Staphylococcus aureus.
  • Bacteria in food can cause infections when the microorganism is eaten and established in the body, usually multiplying inside the intestinal tract and irritating the lining of the intestines. Two well-known bacteria that can cause these types of infections are Salmonella and Campylobacter.
  • Other microorganisms in food may produce harmful or deadly toxins while growing in the intestinal tract. Two pathogens that work this way are Clostridium botulinum and Staphylococcus aureus.
  • Viral pathogens are often transmitted by infected food handlers or through contact with sewage. Only a few viral pathogens, such as Hepatitis A and Norwalk viruses, have been proven to cause foodborne illnesses.
  • Parasites, such as Trichinella spiralis, which causes trichinosis, can occur in microscopic forms, such as eggs and larvae.
  • CDC experts report that many of the intestinal illnesses commonly referred to as stomach flu are actually caused by foodborne pathogens. People do not associate these illnesses with food because the onset of symptoms often occurs two or more days after the contaminated food was eaten.
  • Natural toxins may occur in some fish or other foods, such as scombroid toxin in tuna, mackerel or bluefish that have not been properly refrigerated.
  • Most cases of foodborne illness in healthy adults are self-limiting and of short duration. Diarrhea, cramps and vomiting are the most common acute symptoms of many foodborne illnesses, which can range from mild to severe.

If you have questions or concerns about food safety, contact:

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Meat and Poultry Hotline at (800) 535-4555 or (202) 720-3333 (Washington, DC area). The TTY number for the hearing impaired is (800) 256-7072.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Food Information Line at (888) SAFE FOOD.

Reprinted with permission from
The Fight BAC! Web site at: www.fightbac.org


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