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Are You Sure It Wasn’t Food Poisoning?

Posted by Abigail Shew, Food Safety Education Staff, Food Safety and Inspection Service, USDA in Health and Safety
Aug 28, 2017
Foodborne illness symptoms
If you have been experiencing these symptoms for longer than 24 hours please seek medical attention immediately.

The United States food supply is one of the safest in the world; however, that doesn’t mean our food is free from all pathogenic bacteria. As we celebrate National Food Safety Education Month this September, the United States Department of Agriculture, along with our partners at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration, want you to know that it is possible for your food to be almost completely safe from pathogenic bacteria by following the four basic steps to food safety.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, foodborne illness will cause 128,000 hospitalizations, and 3,000 deaths each year.

While not all bacteria present in food products is harmful (in fact, bacterial species are essential in production of delicious and safe yogurt and cheese products), some have the potential to cause severe illness in certain individuals. Meat and poultry products are not sterile when they are purchased, nor are egg products or produce items. This means that proper storage, handling and cooking technique are essential in preventing foodborne illnesses.

Symptoms of food poisoning

It can be hard to differentiate between food poisoning and the flu; often the symptoms are similar if not identical. While different types of pathogenic bacteria can cause different symptoms, food poisoning generally presents itself with symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramping, and fever. Because of the similarities between bacterial food poisoning and viral flu symptoms, many people will assume that they are experiencing the flu rather than foodborne illness and wait out the symptoms rather than go to the doctor for testing. Symptoms of food poisoning can appear anywhere between four hours and one week after ingesting a contaminated food item, and can persist for as short a time as 24 hours or as long as a week. This variability in both onset and duration of symptoms is another reason food poisoning so often goes unidentified.

Pathogenic bacteria are more likely to cause infection or illness in individuals with certain physical conditions. Infants, children, pregnant women, and older adults are often at a higher risk for foodborne illness. Those with weakened immune systems, such as individuals with HIV/AIDS, diabetes, cancer, kidney disease, or transplant patients may also be more susceptible to foodborne illness. It is especially important for members of these groups to receive medical attention in instances of food poisoning because foodborne illness is most likely to be fatal in members of these vulnerable populations.

Causes of Food Poisoning

When pathogenic bacteria and viruses are present in food, and that food is not properly stored, handled or cooked, it can cause illness. The most common strains of bacteria that cause infection are Salmonella, E. coli, Campylobacter, and Listeria. Many of these bacteria are present in raw meat, poultry, and eggs. Others are found on produce or even people’s hands, and can cause illness when proper hygiene is not followed. Food poisoning can also be caused by molds or parasites though bacterial infection is the most common. Some foodborne illness may also be caused by allergies to a specific food, though food allergy is not necessarily the same thing as food poisoning.

In case of food poisoning

If you think you may be experiencing food poisoning, your first step should be to seek medical attention, if necessary. If you have been experiencing symptoms for longer than 24 hours, or are a member of an at-risk group such as those listed above, seek medical attention immediately.

If a portion of the food you believe made you sick is still available, preserve it and label it as dangerous so no one else becomes sick from it. If you became sick from food served at a local restaurant or large gathering, alert your local health department. 

If you believe you may have experienced food poisoning in the past, it may not be necessary to alert your local health department. More than likely, there will be little they can do if your symptoms have been over for a significant period of time or you are unaware of exactly what products made you sick. Just keep food safety tips in mind for future food preparation and know what to look out for if you have similar symptoms in the future.

Prevention strategies: Making sure you don’t get sick again

In general, using the four basic steps to food safety: clean, separate, cook, and chill should help you prevent food poisoning. When preparing food, make sure that your hands and all cooking surfaces are washed frequently and correctly. Separate raw meat away from other items that you may also be preparing. Cooking meat, poultry, egg products, and fish to the right temperature as measured by a food thermometer, and maintaining it at least 140oF after cooking will ensure that bacteria present in raw meat are killed before consumption. Finally, refrigerating perishable food within two hours of cooking and storing it properly will keep harmful bacteria away from your food and will keep you safe and healthy.

Any other questions? Contact the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline 1-888-MPHotline or AskKaren at www.askkaren.gov and pregunteleakaren.gov.

Category/Topic: Health and Safety

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Comments

Ellen
Aug 30, 2017

Nooooooo... not the flu! Please stop spreading this misinformation! The flu is a *respiratory* infection. It typically does NOT present with "symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramping."

If you're referring to intestinal viruses like norovirus-- which DOES cause symptoms similar to foodborne illness-- then please use a different term. Those are NOT the flu!

I can't believe that USDA is perpetuating this myth.

Randolph
Sep 13, 2017

@Ellen

You so funny.

Seth Westbrook
Sep 19, 2017

Like Ellen posted, this is one of the first things that came to mind when I read this info. Flu-like symptoms are different than food poisoning. The flu is a virus, you are suggesting most food poisoning is bacterial in nature. Also, clean, separate, cook, and chill should be described in better detail. For example, how should you clean meat, poultry, fish, seafood etc..? Clean with what? What temperature should it be cooked to, how long for different meats. I see the part about keeping over 140F. Lastly, how cold should food be stored? How long? These are the questions I was looking for when I read this page. As the USDA, I expect better information should be put out to the public.......

Ben Weaver
Sep 20, 2017

@Seth Westbrook - Hi Seth, thanks for your feedback. We’re sorry to hear you were not satisfied with this read. We invite our readers to explore the four steps several times throughout the blog to ensure a quick & easy read for our consumers. To take a closer look at our four steps to food safety, please visit us at: https://go.usa.gov/xRuRz.

In the future, we hope to develop a more inclusive blog to satisfy all of our readers.

Seth Westbrook
Feb 14, 2018

Ben Weaver thank you for your response and I appreciate the added link.