Food safety

What is a foodborne illness? Facts and statistics!

Foodborne illnesses are caused by pathogenic agents and are contracted through the consumption of contaminated food or ...

  • Foodborne illnesses are caused by pathogenic agents and are contracted through the consumption of contaminated food or water.
  • Foodborne illnesses cause detrimental effects to public health and the economy.
  • Proper food safety and hygiene practices, in addition to basic knowledge about the causative agents of foodborne diseases, are key steps in mitigating the spread of foodborne illnesses.
Whether cooking at home, dining out, or working in a kitchen, it is extremely important to keep yourself and those around you safe. Food hygiene and restaurant cleanliness are vital to keeping yourself, your family, or your customers healthy. The lack of good hygiene and improper food handling practices have led to several outbreaks in the past. As a food handler, you are responsible for ensuring public safety. In addition to foodborne illnesses and injuries, the lack of proper hygiene can also lead to serious economic loss due to reduced productivity. 
Without prior knowledge about foodborne illnesses, and how to prevent them every one is at risk of getting one. Some groups are even more susceptible to these illnesses because of weak immune systems. In general, the World Health Organization has estimated at least 600 million cases of foodborne diseases occur with 30% of 420,000 deaths occurring among children under 5.
In this article, we will share some of the most important information about foodborne illnesses and how to mitigate their spread. 


What is a foodborne illness?

A foodborne illness is any condition resulting from the consumption of food contaminated with microbial pathogens such as bacteria, fungi, viruses, parasites, or chemical substances. Any causative agent can also include toxins derived from these foodborne pathogens which are harder to remove. Shortly, a foodborne illness is a disease that is transmitted to people by food.

Foodborne illnesses can be categorized as either food intoxication or food infection.  Food infection refers to the disease caused by the microorganisms themselves, whereas intoxication is caused by the toxins these pathogens produce. The food itself can be contaminated at any stage, from the production, transportation, and storage, right through to cooking in your own home or food establishment. With a broad range of symptoms, it can be easy to confuse a foodborne illness with other illnesses. Still, with serious side effects and potential hospitalization or even death, you must pay attention to any symptoms you feel to dispose of the contaminated food.

Anyone can be a victim of any food-related illness while some are more susceptible than others.

Individuals considered to be more susceptible to foodborne illnesses include:

  • Elderly people (65 and older)
  • Children (younger than 5 years old)
  • Immunocompromised people (people with chronic disease)
  • Pregnant women (including the unborn baby)


what is a foodborne illness


What are the most common symptoms of a foodborne illness?

Foodborne infections take time to manifest their symptoms in an infected person. This factor depends on the incubation period of the causative pathogen. The incubation period is the length of time it takes before the onset of symptoms becomes evident from the point of consuming a contaminated product. This period can range from hours to days average depending on many factors such as the food you ate, the potential causative pathogen, and others.

The symptoms

Although highly variable, foodborne diseases usually have overlapping and common symptoms. Some of the most common symptoms of foodborne illness include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Fever
  • Abdominal pain or Stomach cramps
  • Watery Diarrhea or loose stools
  • Dehydration (causes dry mouth)

In extreme cases, symptoms may persist for several hours and can worsen. Some severe foodborne illnesses can even manifest through symptoms such as bloody diarrhea and vomit. Once symptoms persist for several hours or if blood is detected in stool or vomit, you should seek immediate medical care. Similarly, in cases with severe diarrhea that lasts longer than three days, if your fever is above 101.5°F (38.6°C), blurred vision, severe stomach pain, or if your vomiting is stopping you from holding down liquids, it would be best to seek professional medical attention.


What to eat when you have food poisoning?

With nausea after eating and other symptoms of food poisoning, eating is usually the last thing on your mind due to a potentially persistent upset stomach. However, once you feel you can eat, you should try light, bland meals such as toast, bananas, cereals, or rice until you begin to feel better. 

As diarrhea and vomiting are two symptoms of a foodborne illness that make you dehydrated, you must drink plenty of clear liquids to rehydrate yourself. If you feel you need it, you can also visit your local drug store to get oral rehydration solutions.


What not to eat when you have food poisoning?

After having food poisoning, it is best to avoid foods that may continue to cause nausea and bloating. In general, it is advised that you do not eat dairy foods, fatty foods, or spicy foods. Some specific foods that cause bloating after food poisoning to avoid are apples, beans, cabbage, onions, and garlic. In addition to these foods, you should try to avoid drinking coffee, dark sodas, milk, and caffeinated tea as these can easily cause abdominal cramps.

If you have any of the symptoms mentioned above, you should then contact your doctor or health care providers. Different countries have different agencies to investigate and monitor any foodborne illness outbreaks in their country. For example, in the United States, the FDA (Food & Drug Administration) has a designated group Coordinated Outbreak Response and Evaluation (CORE) Network to do just this. Once a foodborne illness outbreak occurs and a food safety issue is detected, local authorities and health care providers to the afflicted become responsible to contact the relevant authorities to investigate and find the root cause.


common symptoms of foodborne illness


What are the 5 major foodborne illnesses?

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, researchers have identified at least 250 foodborne disease outcomes. Among these agents, five (5) major pathogens have been identified to be the major foodborne illnesses:

  • Norovirus infection - may be acquired through the person-to-person spread, contaminated water and food, and cross-contamination, and causes viral gastroenteritis.
  • Salmonellosis - spread through foodborne transmission from contaminated and improperly handled foods such as poultry, beef, eggs, fruits, and vegetables.
  • Food poisoning and intoxication from Clostridium perfringenscan come from meat, poultry, gravies, and other foods that have been inadequately processed.
  • Foodborne gastroenteritis from Campylobacter  - can be contracted from undercooked poultry or cross-contamination.
  • Staphylococcal food poisoning - caused by Staphylococcus aureus which is a commensal pathogen and can be transmitted from the skin to the food item with very inadequate food hygiene practices. 

As mentioned, the causative agent for these illnesses includes pathogenic microorganisms and toxins produced by some of them. Foodborne illness-causing pathogens greatly vary in many ways and can be present singularly or in groups. The diseases-causing pathogens greatly depend on factors such as:

  • The type of food
  • Acidity
  • Temperature
  • Presence of oxygen
  • Amount of moisture in the food

Some disease-causing microorganisms are specific to certain conditions. Perhaps the best example of this is one of the most notorious pathogens, the Clostridium botulinum. This pathogen is responsible for the dreaded disease, botulism, which is caused by the toxin that the pathogen releases in certain conditions. Clostridium botulinum is a microorganism that is specifically found in conditions without oxygen such as in canned foods. Botulism is such a potent foodborne illness that it only takes 2 patients to be inflicted with it to declare an outbreak.

Some of the other common and dangerous types of pathogenic bacteria include E. coli, Listeria and Salmonella. As mentioned, Salmonella is one of the major causes of foodborne illness and is extremely infamous for its effects in the infected person such as severe stomach pain and loose stools. Approximately 268,300 deaths have been recorded worldwide in previous estimates in 2015 alone because of this pathogen.

A foodborne illness outbreak occurs when two or more people become ill from consuming the same contaminated food product or drink. Some outbreaks are small-scale, so they can be easily monitored and eradicated. However, large outbreaks can easily spiral out of control when contaminated products are on the market and sold to thousands of consumers across the world. Over the past decade, serious foodborne illness outbreaks have occurred on every continent.


What are the most common causes of foodborne illnesses?

Pathogens along with beneficial microorganisms are innately present in foods. They are part of food commodities and are only processed or controlled to prevent harming consumers. Having the factors affecting the presence of these pathogens and the common types of pathogens discussed, it is also important to know which practices promote their prevalence and thereby increase the risk of foodborne illnesses.
Some of the most common practices that lead to foodborne illnesses include:
  • Unhygienic or unsafe source of raw materials 

Most pathogenic microorganisms abundantly thrive in soil. This means that they get almost inevitably transferred to food materials during harvest, storage, and delivery. This is most especially true for root crops. Without the proper food handling practices such as cleaning and sanitary storage areas, the risk of foodborne illnesses becomes higher.

  • Inadequate cooking

One of the best ways to eliminate the threat of food safety hazards is to cook them to the correct internal temperature. Heat deactivates most of the known pathogenic microorganisms and can render the food safe.

  • Improper storage or holding temperatures

As mentioned, food can become contaminated at any point in the whole food supply chain. Holding cooked foods products at the wrong temperature increases the chances of surviving pathogens to more dangerous levels. This is even more concerning with high-risk foods.

  • Cross-contamination

One of the most common causes of foodborne illnesses, cross-contamination occurs when food preparation is done carelessly. It stems from inadequate segregation of equipment and foods; as well as uncooked foods from cooked food materials. Cross-contamination can easily spread pathogenic microorganisms.

  • Poor personal hygiene

Perhaps the biggest cause of foodborne illness in restaurants is poor personal hygiene. As a food handler, whether you are at home or a food establishment, you are expected to know and promote good food hygiene practices such as washing your hands.

One of the keys to minimizing the effects of these causes of foodborne illnesses is to have a good food safety management system (FSMS). An FSMS works best, especially for a food establishment, to always keep food safety hazards at bay. This is what we at FoodDocs aim to achieve. Our digital FSMS was made to make all management processes of your food safety easier yet more comprehensive.


foods most associated with foodborne illness


What foods are most associated with foodborne illness?

Pathogenic microorganisms and other food safety hazards that can cause foodborne illnesses and related injuries are inherently present in food materials. Food processing and other food safety practices only aim to minimize or eliminate these hazards. As such, a variety of foods have been linked with certain foodborne illness-causing pathogens. This specificity may be due to the nature of the food material and the growing requirements of the pathogen.

Below are some of the variety of foods most associated with some of the common foodborne illnesses:

  • Raw meat, poultry, fish, and their derived products. Different types of uncooked foods may harbor various pathogens, with some being more prevalent than others. A good example of this is poultry. Chicken, duck, or turkey, when not cooked properly, can cause foodborne illnesses related to Salmonella, Campylobacter, and Listeria which are found in the feathers and guts of birds.
  • Vegetables and fruits. These food products are rich in vitamins and nutrients and therefore are great growing media for pathogens. Both vegetables and fruits may house bacteria such as E.coli and Salmonella as well as yeasts and molds that can have negative effects.
  • Unpasteurized milk. Before determining the key foodborne disease-causing pathogen, consumption of raw milk has caused several outbreaks. Pasteurization was designed to kill pathogenic bacteria that can cause severe illness and are specifically known to be found in raw milk (e.g. Coxiella burnetti and Mycobacterium tuberculosis)
  • Untreated water. Although it may seem unlikely, unclean and untreated water houses many known pathogens and has been linked as a source of outbreaks including vibriosis and diarrheal illness or traveler's diarrhea caused by E.coli. This is why having clean drinking water is an essential part of a comprehensive food safety management system.
  • Rice and root crops. Like vegetables, these agricultural products are grown very close to the soil and therefore can harbor several pathogenic microorganisms. Rice, specifically, is known to be a good medium for food intoxication-causing bacteria Bacillus cereus. 

Despite being good reservoirs for pathogenic microorganisms, food materials can become free from these hazards and mitigate the risks of foodborne illnesses. With adequate processing, adequate knowledge of food hygiene practices, and good management, such risks are significantly decreased


Prevalence of foodborne diseases around the world

Many people do not realize the wide reach of foodborne illnesses, but with thousands of deaths every year, it is something important to pay attention to. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), unsafe food causes 600 million cases of foodborne diseases and 420 000 deaths every year. These cases are distributed all over the world.

Below we will go through some foodborne illness statistics from Australia, Canada, the European Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

United States of America

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that approximately 3000 people die every year in the US from foodborne illnesses, with further population estimates of 128,000 hospitalized and about 48 million cases annually. That is one in every six people getting ill every year as a result of contaminated food.

Despite being known as a country with high standards when it comes to food safety, the USA is not exempted from the risks of foodborne illnesses. Food poisoning remains one of the most significant public health threats. According to the USDA, foodborne illness estimates for at least $15.6 billion every year to the American economy. This is due to the loss of productivity and mortality rates once afflicted with the condition.


The Australian government predicts that approximately 4.1 million Australians are affected by foodborne illnesses every year, with 31,920 hospitalizations, and 86 deaths. That breaks down to 11,233 new cases every day on average. 

In a report released by the country's foodborne diseases active surveillance network, OzFoodNet, approximately 450 foodborne illness outbreaks occurred in Australia from 2013 to 2015. This accounts for 7,361 people affected by these gastrointestinal illness outbreaks and at least 705 hospitalizations with 18 deaths. In Australia, the biggest cause of foodborne illness is attributed to the pathogen, Salmonella


In 2016, the Canadian are that 1.6 million people contract known foodborne illnesses every year, with 4000 hospitalizations and 105 deaths. However, this is only taking into account cases of known foodborne illnesses, and they report a further 2.4 million cases, 7,600 hospitalizations, and 133 deaths each year listed as caused by unspecified agents. To date, the Government of Canada has estimated that at least 4 million cases of foodborne illnesses in the country every year. This estimate includes 11,600 hospitalizations and 238 deaths per year.

United Kingdom

In the UK, The Food Standards Agency (FSA) estimates a total of 2.4 million cases of foodborne illnesses annually, with 16,400 hospitalizations and 180 deaths. These cases happen despite the very stringent and comprehensive protocols of the FSA to mitigate food safety hazards. 

The biggest cause of foodborne illness is attributed to two causative agents, the Norovirus and Campylobacter spp in the UK. In 2017, at least 56, 729 cases were caused by Campylobacter sp. Outbreaks concerning the two previously mentioned pathogens as well as Salmonella have been reported in the UK over the last few years as well.

European Union

In the most recent study from 2019, 27 Member States (excluding Slovakia) reported 5,175 foodborne outbreaks involving 49,463 cases of illness, 3,859 hospitalizations, and 60 deaths. The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control has identified that majority of the foodborne illnesses in EU estimates for Salmonella and Norovirus. 


yearly cases of foodborne illnesses


Best practices to prevent foodborne illness

Despite being prevalent all over the world, foodborne illnesses are very much preventable and can be controlled. The efforts of food safety agencies and like-minded organizations all over the world have to lead to standard food safety management systems that aim to prevent food hazards from occurring and protect public health.

Within these food safety management systems are basic food safety principles and practices that everyone can do to mitigate the spread of foodborne illness agents and control food safety issues

Check restaurant inspection scores

In many countries, such as the UK, the process is straightforward to determine what kind of health and safety score a restaurant has obtained. You can look this up online through a government's food board website and find the rating of any restaurant.

Learn more about food hygiene scores here

Make sure food hygiene and safety rules are being followed

A common, possible way of spreading food poisoning is by restaurant workers unknowingly passing their illness to customers. If you can see food being prepared, check to make sure workers use gloves or utensils to handle foods that will not be cooked further, particularly meat and salad greens. You can also observe how food establishments hold hot foods to prevent fast spoilage. For a food business, it is important to be always aware of any food safety policy imposed by their local authorities.


If you are unsure, send it back

Particularly if you have ordered meat, fish, or poultry that you believe has not been cooked fully, do not hesitate to send it back to the kitchen. The workers should always have your safety in mind and make sure the food has been cooked thoroughly.

The four C's is a term coined by countries worldwide, as it is the best way to prevent foodborne illnesses simply and effectively to lessen the possibility of contaminating food and passing on a foodborne illness.

  • Cleaning: You can prevent the spread of harmful bacteria and viruses by maintaining good personal hygiene standards and keeping work surfaces and utensils clean. Always make sure to wash your hands, especially after handling raw foods, garbage, or going to the toilet.
  • Cooking: It is vital when preparing food, particularly raw shellfish, meat, fish, and poultry, that you make sure the food is cooked thoroughly. To make sure, you can always use a food thermometer to ensure the food you have cooked is at least 167°F (75°C) or hotter. When reheating food, always ensure it is completely heated by using a food thermometer and never reheat food more than once. Always check that the reheated food is heated evenly throughout. Additionally, if you intend to store foods longer than two hours, hot foods and cold foods must be kept from the temperature danger zone.
  • Chilling: Unrefrigerated leftover food is an extremely common cause of food poisoning. It is vital that leftovers are refrigerated within two hours of eating, or one hour if it is particularly hot outside (90°F or 32°C). Always eat leftover food within three to four days, or less if you think it seems necessary. That is the best way to limit the growth of bacteria in food. If you need to refrigerate food, make sure your refrigerator is set between 32°F and 41°F (0-5°C). That said, pathogens grow well between 41°F -135°F (5°C-57°C)
  • Cross-contamination: Cross-contamination is when bacteria are transferred from one food to another. This usually occurs with raw foods. This usually happens when foods touch each other or when bacteria on your hands, equipment, work surfaces, or utensils are transferred to other food. Following food health and safety guidelines and making sure your kitchen and equipment are always clean is the best way to prevent cross-contamination.


Digital solution to food safety management for food businesses

For years food handlers have struggled to keep on top of their food safety management, making sure they adhere to local regulations and maintain safe practices. Fortunately, with the world's progression towards the digital age, gone are the days of filling out sheet after sheet of paper to make sure your team is on top of your food safety guidelines. At FoodDocs, we now have the technology available to digitize all of your food safety documents, meaning it has never been easier to prepare safe food!
Our digital Food Safety Management System at FoodDocs was built by food safety experts for an easier monitoring system for all of your food safety tasks. Ensure and fulfill all food hygiene and safety standards of your local authority with an FSMS that is tailored to fit your food business. Our FSMS features automatically generated monitoring forms and real-time dashboards that are based on your food business. We also feature a food production traceability system to ensure the safety of all your consumers and control any potential foodborne illness outbreak.
By answering a few questions related to the nature of your establishment, we generate necessary monitoring tasks for you. You can also access other free food safety templates and checklists from our template hub. From here, it even gets better. Our system automatically fills your monitoring forms based on your previously logged information and readings. You can monitor all daily tasks and progress using our FoodDocs mobile application.
Get a system that automatically notifies you when a food safety task is due or when a parameter for food safety in your operations is breached. Our system also provides a central and easily accessible cloud storage where you can store all of your food safety-related documents. Monitor and supervise your food safety tasks remotely and focus on other tasks in your food business by spending just 15 minutes to switch to our digital solution
Maintain compliance with local and international food safety standards by monitoring your food hygiene and safety practices with ease. Start your journey to your digital food safety management system with our 14-day free trial.


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