What Is Foodborne Illness?
Foodborne illness often presents itself as flu-like symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or fever, so many people may not recognize the illness is caused by bacteria or other pathogens in food.
Thousands of types of bacteria are naturally present in our environment. Not all bacteria cause disease 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. Most cases of foodborne illness can be prevented. Proper cooking or processing of food destroys 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 older adults are at greatest risk for foodborne illness, as are all people with weakened immune systems caused by cancer treatment, AIDS, diabetes, kidney disease, and organ transplants. Some persons may become ill after ingesting only a few harmful bacteria; others may remain symptom free after ingesting thousands.
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, and melons.
Foods, including safely cooked, ready-to-eat foods, 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
Follow these general guidelines:
^ 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, other identifying marks on the package, the time consumed, and when the onset of symptoms occurred. Save any identical unopened products.
^ Seek treatment as 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.
^ Call the local health department if the suspect food was served at a large gathering, from a restaurant or other foodservice facility, or if it is a commercial product.
^ Call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline if the suspect food is a USDA-inspected product and you have all the packaging.
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