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Foodborne Illness FAQ

Foodborne illness can strike at any time. Understanding what causes foodborne illness (also commonly called "food poisoning") and how to avoid it is the best defense. Bacteria cause most foodborne illness. However, sometimes viruses or other organisms cause illness as well. When food poisoning causes serious injury and the manufacturer or distributor fails to take responsibility, it may face legal action for selling defective products. The following are answers to frequently asked questions regarding foodborne illness.

Q: Are some foods more likely to cause foodborne illness than others?

Almost any food can become contaminated if mishandled. However, foods rich in protein (such as meat, poultry, fish, and seafood) are most susceptible to contamination. This is because:

  1. Protein-rich foods tend to be of animal origin.
  2. Animal foods are rich in protein that bacteria break down into amino acids, an important nutrient source for some bacteria.

Bacteria need moisture to survive and reproduce. Consequently, they're attracted to foods with high moisture content. Starchy, egg-rich foods and cream-based foods can become contaminated as a result. Examples of these types of foods include potato salad, pasta salads, cream-based soup, and custard or cream pies. Raw milk and undercooked meat are particularly dangerous.

Q: What steps can I take to prevent foodborne illness?

You can ensure that food is stored and prepared in a safe manner. Some food items have to be frozen or refrigerated to remain safe to eat. You should follow the storage directions on a food's label or packaging. Also, check expiration dates where applicable.

Safe food preparation involves cleanliness and thorough cooking. You should always wash your hands before and after cooking or cleaning, and especially after handling raw meat. Make sure that your dishes and utensils are cleaned after touching raw meat, eggs, poultry, or fish. Using a meat thermometer can allow you to ensure that meat reaches a high enough temperature to burn off bacteria. The suggested temperature varies depending on the meat, but should be around 180 degrees Fahrenheit. After cooking, you should refrigerate foods that will not be immediately eaten.

Q: What symptoms are associated with foodborne illness?

The most common symptoms are diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. Other symptoms include fever, headache, severe exhaustion, and bloody stool. A person's symptoms can vary depending on other health factors and the quantity of the contaminated food eaten.

Your symptoms or illness can occur sometime after eating contaminated food. Often symptoms do not become noticeable for days or even weeks afterwards. This length of time can vary depending on the food in question and the exact cause of your illness.

Q: How sick can I get from eating contaminated food?

This can vary from person to person. It can also depend on the contaminant in question. Most people will suffer short term, if inconvenient, symptoms that can pass in a day or two. Some people can suffer more severe symptoms that last for more than a week. Generally, healthy people do not suffer long-lasting or life-threatening illnesses from food contamination.

However, there can be special cases. People with weak immune symptoms less able to fight off bacteria can become very ill and even die from foodborne illness. The severity of symptoms can also depend on other factors such as age, general health, and the amount of contaminated food eaten. Children and elderly people with certain diseases are especially at risk of serious complications.

Q: Are foodborne illness symptoms similar to flu symptoms?

Yes. Many people mistake foodborne illness for the flu. Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and exhaustion are common symptoms for both foodborne illness and the flu. Also, the lag time between eating a contaminated food and the development of symptoms can cause people to overlook the possibility of food poisoning.

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