Food poisoning is a serious problem that affects thousands of people every year.
Food poisoning must be recognized early to prevent a minor problem from becoming a serious health problem. Call 1-800-222-1222 for help with food poisoning.
Anyone who eats food that has been contaminated by bacteria or other chemicals can suffer from food poisoning. In addition, some plants and wild mushrooms can cause food poisoning.
Types of Food Poisoning
Bacteria is the most common form of food poisoning and occurs when we eat food that is contaminated with bacteria. Some types of bacteria produce enough toxin to poison an individual or pet directly, while others produce an infection that causes illness. Some common causes of bacterial food poisoning:
- Improper hand-washing
- Failure to wash hands
- Not wearing gloves when preparing and serving food
- Failure to keep food at the proper temperature during preparation, storage, and service
- Utensils and cutting surfaces that are not washed between the preparation of different foods and during processing or storage
- Food that is heated or cooled inadequately
Common Types of Bacteria Found in Food
Staph bacteria grow very rapidly, especially in foods with high protein content such as meat, beans, and dairy products. When these foods are not properly kept hot or cold, the bacteria multiply and produce a toxin that cannot be destroyed by additional cooling or cooking. Once the contaminated food is eaten, the poison affects the digestive tract.
Signs and symptoms: nausea, cramping, vomiting, and diarrhea (can last for 24-48 hours).
Salmonella is one of the most dangerous forms of food poisoning. Salmonella bacteria are found most commonly in raw or uncooked chicken, turkey, eggs, and unpasteurized dairy products. The bacteria invade and reproduce in the digestive tract.
Salmonella can also be contracted from small “pocket” pets.
Signs and symptoms: severe diarrhea (may last for days) and dehydration. It is important to seek immediate medical attention if you suspect salmonella food poisoning.
Shigella is usually transmitted by food handlers. In some people, the bacteria may enter the bloodstream and infect the entire body.
Signs and symptoms: severe diarrhea.
An extremely infectious E. coli strain (E. coli 0157:H7) has been publicized widely as the cause of serious illness and fatalities—Washington residents were affected by an E. coli outbreak at a fast-food hanburger chain in the 1990s. Undercooked meat is the main source of E. coli—never eat raw or undercooked ground beef.
Signs and symptoms: severe abdominal cramps and diarrhea (may suffer kidney damage if the infection goes untreated).
Botulism is responsible for the most deadly form of bacterial food poisoning. When food is processed improperly, these bacteria multiply and produce a poison that affects the nervous system and causes botulism. A common warning sign of possible botulism contamination is a bulging container or lid—do not eat.
Infant botulism may occur when honey is fed to infants. Honey may contain botulism spores that can become bacteria when swallowed and should not be fed to infants.
Signs and symptoms: double vision, inability to swallow, difficulty speaking, inability to breathe (may begin as soon as 12-36 hours after eating contaminated food).
Additives & Preservatives
Food additives and preservatives may cause toxic and allergic reactions. Monosodium glutamate (MSG) which is often found in Chinese foods, can cause headache, intestinal discomfort, and even chest pain that resembles a heart attack.
People may also be poisoned by eating food contaminated with industrial chemicals. Heavy metal poisoning can occur when food products are stored in improper containers. For example, lead poisoning can occur when acidic substances such as citrus juices are stored in pottery containers.
Some mushrooms can cause serious liver poisoning—never pick and eat wild mushrooms.
Toxins found in fish can cause fatal poisoning episodes. Shellfish can also harbor viruses and bacteria; always keep shellfish cold and cook thoroughly before eating.
To avoid food poisoning, follow these general safe food handling tips:
- Practice good hygiene by washing hands thoroughly before, during, and after food preparation and service.
- Avoid using porous and wooden cutting boards which harbor bacteria.
- Wash cutting boards frequently.
- Use a clean plate, bowl, or utensil for cooked meats; do not re-use items that held raw meat.
- Keep cold foods cold, preferably less than 40ºF.
- Keep hot foods hot, preferably above 165ºF.
- Cool foods rapidly after preparation.
- Refrigerate leftover foods immediately.
- Thaw frozen food in the refrigerator.
- Cook food thoroughly to kill bacteria (hamburger patties, pork chops and ribs should be cooked until all the pink is gone; cook poultry until there is no red in the joints).
- Follow cooking instructions; cook at proper heat level and length of time (under-cooking is the main problem in home canning).
- Avoid swelling containers—those with bulging lids, unusual odor or odd color.
- When in doubt throw it out.
Transporting, Camping & Picnicking with Food
Follow these additional tips when transporting food, camping or picnicking:
- Buy perishables last and get them home and in the refrigerator or portable ice-chest immediately. Perishable items include meat, poultry, eggs, cheese, dairy products, desserts and salads; these products need to be kept at 40ºF or below at all times. Pack perishables in a cooler filled with ice or freezer packs.
- If you plan on eating take-out foods, such as fried chicken or barbecued beef, eat them within two hours, or chill before packing the foods into a cooler.
- Do not put coolers in the trunk; carry them inside the air-conditioned vehicle. Coolers kept in a hot trunk or in the back of pickups will need to be iced down more often.
- Pack raw meats in a different cooler, away from cooked meats and fresh foods to reduce chances of cross-contamination.
- Do not let perishable food sit out for more than two hours. If the temperature is over 90ºF, the safety zone is cut to one hour
Thanksgiving and other holidays are popular times for eating turkey; check our Turkey Tips for thawing and cooking your bird safely.