Food poisoning ("food-borne illness") is caused by eating foods containing bacteria, viruses, parasites, or other pathogens.
While FDA and USDA regulations try to prevent food from becoming tainted, food contamination is still a problem. This is true even though food product recalls aim to prevent tainted foods from reaching consumers.
Food-borne illnesses are severe. They are one of the most common grounds for personal injury claims. This article provides information about the types and sources of food poisoning. It also offers helpful resources on food recalls and food safety.
If you are already sick from contaminated food, see FoodSafety.gov to read the symptoms of a food-borne illness.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for the regulation and safety standards of approximately 80% of the U.S. food supply. The remaining 20% of foods, primarily meat and egg products, are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).
Food manufacturers and distributors typically initiate food recalls. The FDA can also request them. Because food recalls are expensive and stigmatizing, food companies try to resolve problems as quickly as possible.
Types of Food Poisoning
There are at least 250 types of food poisoning. However, most cases fall into one of three categories: bacterial, parasitic, and viral.
While you don't need to know details, it's worth discussing them briefly. This way, you are familiar with the terms if you are sick and need information on your illness.
- Bacterial: E. coli, Clostridium botulinum, Shigella
- Parasitic: Toxoplasma, Giardia intestinalis, Cryptosporidium
- Viral: Norovirus and Rotavirus
One of the unique things about food poisoning is that you know if you're sick immediately. Common symptoms can include the following:
- Abdominal cramping
More severe types of food poisoning, such as botulism, Hepatitis A, and vibriosis, can cause death. Listeria can also cause death in unborn fetuses.
Who Is at Risk of Food Poisoning?
While everybody is at risk of developing food poisoning, certain groups are more vulnerable to this illness. These groups include:
- Young children
- Pregnant women
- People with a chronic medical condition
- People with a weak immune system
These groups must be careful about the food they eat.
Foods Most Associated With Food Poisoning
Technically, any food can become contaminated. However, certain types of food are more likely to make you sick. Eggs and meats are prone to carrying bacteria. Restaurants and stores must handle, store, and cook them properly.
Food recalls for meat products include the following:
- Deli meats
- Hot dogs
Deli meats on sandwiches are another source of food recalls.
Dairy products are also prone to contamination. This is especially so for mayonnaise on summer salads left on a picnic table for hours and soft cheeses like queso fresco.
In recent years, the U.S. has recalled many food items, including:
- Romaine lettuce
- Packaged salad mixes
- Green potatoes
There also have been several recalls of flour, cookie dough, and cake mixes.
How Food Becomes Contaminated
Food can become contaminated anywhere, from harvest and preparation to packaging and sale.
Some of the more common methods of contamination include:
- Poor waste handling, unsanitary animal sheltering, and feeding practices. These can result in diseased animals.
- The intrusion of animals into farm fields or poor cleaning practices during harvesting can introduce bacteria and viruses to a 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 another.
- Transporting food products in an unclean truck or a vehicle with broken refrigeration can allow bacteria to multiply.
- Bacteria can multiply again if the other food isn't separated and promptly stored at the right temperature.
- Food may become cross-contaminated at a manufacturing facility with allergens like dairy or peanuts. There may also be a processing problem that results in unsafe canning, bottling, or packaging.
- Food can become contaminated if undercooked, prepared on a contaminated surface, or if the staff are sick and spread their illness.
The FDA and the U.S. government have provided regulations to help prevent these things from happening.
Other Ways Food Can Be Dangerous
The McDonald's coffee scalding case is one of the most famous modern food injury lawsuits. McDonald's, like most other restaurants, served its coffee piping hot. Hundreds of people had already reported injuries.
When a 79-year-old woman spilled coffee on her lap at the McDonald's drive-thru, she received third-degree burns. A jury awarded her $2.7 million for pain and suffering. They also awarded her punitive damages. A judge reduced her judgment on appeal; ultimately, there was a private settlement.
Food warning labels and disclaimers may sufficiently protect a company from legal liability. For example, many products carry warning labels that there could be cross-contamination with allergens.
But there have been other lawsuits involving dangerous foods. For example, a consumer sued Tyson after finding pieces of metal in their chicken. In 2019, the Washington Post reported that Tyson recalled 17 million pounds of the company's meat products containing bits of glass, plastic, metal, or other materials.
Unique Food Poisoning Cases
Any food can become dangerous if contaminated or left out for too long. Some unique foods, however, are hazardous regardless of how carefully they are handled or prepared.
Some of the unique food dangers include:
- Ackee fruit from Jamaica: This Jamaican fruit is toxic for humans if eaten raw. It can cause a condition called “Jamaican Vomiting Sickness," which involves vomiting, altered mental states, and hypoglycemia. This fruit can cause seizures, hypothermia, coma, and even death in extreme cases.
- Pufferfish: This is an Asian delicacy. Chefs must undergo special training to cut the fish; otherwise, the toxic poison - tetrodotoxin - can paralyze the person who eats it. Pufferfish can also cause fugu poisoning, which can prove lethal.
- Elderberries: If eaten raw or before ripened, elderberries or elderberry jam can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
- Rhubarb leaves: People may suffer from oxalic acid poisoning if they eat them in large quantities.
- Cassava: This food has naturally occurring hydrogen cyanide. Don't eat it raw. If a chef doesn't prepare it properly, it can be poisoning and even life-threatening.
It is impossible to list all of the foods that can be harmful. Some of the other most dangerous foods include cashews, cherry pits, avocados, apricots, bitter almonds, and apple seeds.
Contact a Products Liability Attorney for Legal Help
You can settle your injury claim for food poisoning by yourself. However, the defendant will likely have an attorney working for them. Have an experienced product liability lawyer or personal injury attorney review your claim to protect your legal rights. They can advise if you have a legal case.
Learn About Dangerous Foods
Dangerous Foods Articles
You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help
Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.