Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors | Last reviewed December 06, 2021
Food poisoning (also called “ food-borne illness") is caused by consuming foods contaminated with bacteria, viruses, parasites, or other food-borne pathogens.
While FDA and USDA regulations try to prevent food from becoming tainted in the first place, and food product recalls strive to prevent tainted foods from reaching consumers, food contamination continues to be a problem.
Food-borne illnesses are serious, and one of the most common types of personal injury claims. This article provides information about the types and sources of food poisoning. You will also find resources on food recalls and food safety.
If you are already sick, see FoodSafety.gov to identify the symptoms of a food-borne illness from e. coli, listeria, norovirus, salmonella, staphylococcus aureus, trichinosis, campylobacter, clostridium, and more.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for the regulation and safety standards of approximately 80 percent of the U.S. food supply. The remaining 20 percent of foods, primarily meat and egg products, are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).
Food recalls are initiated by food manufacturers or distributors, although they can be requested by the FDA. Because food recalls are expensive and stigmatizing for the recalling company, they are highly motivated to resolve problems as quickly as possible.
Types of Food Poisoning
At least 250 different types of food poisoning have been documented, most caused by bacteria and viruses. The most common are e. coli, listeria, salmonella, and norovirus (which cases what people normally associate as "stomach flu").
Common symptoms are diarrhea, abdominal cramping, vomiting, nausea, fever, dehydration, More serious types of food poisoning, such as botulism, Hepatitis A, and vibriosis can cause death. Listeria can cause death for unborn fetuses.
Foods Most Associated with Food Poisoning
Meats are particularly prone to carrying bacteria and must be handled, stored, and cooked properly. Food recalls for meat products include deli meats, hot dogs, seafood, chicken and turkey, shellfish, pork, beef, and eggs. Deli meats on sandwiches are another source of food recalls.
Dairy products are also prone to contamination, especially mayonnaise on summer salads left for hours on the picnic table, and soft cheeses like queso fresco.
In recent years, the U.S. has had recalls of many food items, including sprouts, spinach, romaine lettuce, packaged salad mixes, cantaloupes, onions, and mushrooms. There have even been several recalls of flour. cookie dough, and cake mixes.
How Food Becomes Contaminated
Food can become contaminated anywhere along the line from farm to table, and in many different ways.
- Poor waste handling and unsanitary animal sheltering and feeding practices can result in diseased animals.
- The intrusion of animals into farm fields or poor cleaning practices during harvesting and food storage of fruits and vegetables can introduce bacteria and viruses at the farm. (Some of these bacteria live naturally in the soil.)
- Unhygienic practices at a slaughterhouse can spread bacteria and viruses from one infected animal to others being processed in that facility.
- Transporting food products in an unclean truck or a vehicle whose refrigeration is not working properly can allow bacteria to multiply.
- At the store or restaurant, bacteria can multiply again if it wasn't separated and promptly stored at the right temperature.
- Food may become cross-contaminated at a food manufacturing facility with allergens like dairy or peanuts. There may also be a processing problem that results in unsafe canning, bottling, or packaging.
- Finally, food can become contaminated at a restaurant if it is undercooked, prepared on a contaminated surface, or if the staff are sick and spread their illness.
Other Ways Food Can Be Dangerous
The McDonald's coffee scalding case is probably one of the most famous modern food injury lawsuits. McDonald's knew its coffee was served at too high a temperature. Hundreds of people had already reported injuries, and it had been going on for years.
When a 79-year-old woman spilled coffee on her lap, she received third-degree burns. A jury awarded her $2.7 million for pain and suffering, and punitive damages against McDonald's. That amount was reduced on appeal and ultimately there was a private settlement.
Food warning labels may be sufficient to protect a company from legal liability. Many products carry warning labels that there could be cross-contamination with allergens.
But there are other, more common dangerous food incidents, like the Tyson chicken strips recalled for pieces of metal found in the chicken. In 2019, the Washington Post reported that 17 million pounds of meat products were recalled for containing bits of glass, plastic, metal, or other materials.
Contact a Products Liability Attorney for Legal Help
While you can always attempt to settle a claim of injuries from food poisoning by yourself, a business will have an attorney on its side. To protect your right to financial recovery, ask an experienced local product liability lawyer or personal injury attorney to review your claim. They can advise if you have a legal case.
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