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Types of Food Poisoning and the Law

Most people know what food poisoning is. Many of us know what it feels like to have a foodborne illness. Usually, we assume that we have a stomach bug or the flu. The truth is that most cases of food poisoning are minor. People don't tend to go to the doctor or the emergency room unless their symptoms get severe.

If you're like many people, you wonder just how many types of food poisoning there are. When you get sick from food contaminated with bacteria or another pathogen, it's called food poisoning or foodborne illness.

Most types of food poisoning will cause vomiting, stomach cramps, and diarrhea. The symptoms are often temporary. In other cases, however, a gastrointestinal illness such as E. coli or salmonella can prove lethal. This is especially true for young children, older adults, and people with a weakened immune system.

How Many Types of Foodborne Diseases Are There?

There are at least 250 different kinds of food poisoning bacteria. The most common are E. coli, salmonella, and listeria. Typically, when you learn of a food poisoning outbreak, the news is about one of these illnesses.

Of course, there are other types. For example, bacteria spread through contaminated food or food handling. Some of these include:

  • Botulism
  • Norovirus
  • Campylobacter
  • Vibrio
  • Shigella
  • Hepatitis A virus
  • Gastroenteritis
  • Meningitis
  • Clostridium

Each type or strain of foodborne illness has its source. Some spread through contaminated water, while others come from raw meat or undercooked poultry. You can even catch a foodborne disease after eating from a dirty plate.

The critical thing to remember is that you can never be too careful about foodborne pathogens.

How Do the Various Types of Food Poisoning Spread?

You can contract food poisoning from eating at a restaurant that doesn't follow the health department's safety guides, or you may get sick after eating spoiled food from the grocery store. Once you know how these diseases transfer, it's easier to avoid them.

Some of the more common methods of transfer include the following:

  • Someone handles food without washing their hands
  • Eating unwashed raw fruit, veggies, or raw produce that contains bacteria
  • Eating undercooked or raw meat
  • Consuming refrigerated food at room temperature for too long
  • Cross-contamination of food bacteria
  • Deli meats, hot dogs, or ground beef the preparer didn't store properly
  • Drinking unpasteurized milk
  • Ingesting spoiled dairy products or soft cheeses such as Brie
  • Using cutting boards, utensils, or cooking on countertops without washing them

If you avoid these behaviors, you should be able to avoid most cases of food poisoning. If you do get sick, visit your healthcare provider if your symptoms persist for more than a day or two.

E. coli (Escherichia coli)

Most forms of E. coli are harmless. Even if you get sick, your symptoms will only last a day or two. The dangerous strain is E. coli 0157: H7. This bacteria usually comes from the intestines of healthy livestock. The animal doesn't have to be sick for the bacteria to exist in their digestive tract.

Some foods that carry E. coli include undercooked or raw meat, raw milk, and dairy products. It can spread to vegetables and fruits growing near the livestock, and it also transfers through person-to-person contact.

The symptoms of E. coli include:

  • Bloody diarrhea
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Kidney failure (in extreme cases)
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

You can kill E. coli bacteria by cooking your food to an internal temperature of at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit.

Salmonella (Salmonella enterica)

Another common type of food poisoning is salmonella. Most people assume that the only way to get salmonella is from raw or undercooked chicken and eggs. You can indeed catch salmonella from poultry, beef, and pork, but you can also develop this illness from drinking spoiled milk or eating tainted produce.

The symptoms of salmonella are similar to those of E. coli. They include:

  • Diarrhea
  • High fever
  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

Salmonella, if left untreated, can last four to seven days. There isn't much a doctor can do to help other than keep you hydrated and administer anti-nausea medication.

Listeria (Listeriosis)

Listeria monocytogenes are the bacteria that cause this foodborne illness. It's usually more severe than E. coli and Salmonella. It is hazardous for the following:

  • Infants
  • Newborns
  • Pregnant women
  • People with a weakened immune system

Those with other chronic medical conditions are also at a higher risk of contracting listeria. This bacteria transfers through contaminated water and soil. Farm animals that carry the bacteria spread it through waste. You often find listeria in undercooked and raw meats and vegetables.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the symptoms of listeria are similar to those of other foodborne illnesses and include the following:

  • High fever
  • Muscle aches
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Loss of balance
  • Convulsions

If you experience these symptoms, seek medical attention immediately. If not treated, listeria can prove life-threatening, especially in at-risk populations.

How To Prevent and Avoid Foodborne Illnesses

The best way to avoid the symptoms of food poisoning is to avoid contaminated food in the first place. There are specific steps you can take to prevent foodborne illnesses. Be vigilant and use common sense.

Some of the safety tips you must follow to avoid getting sick include the following:

  • Handle raw meat with care
  • Cook all ground beef and hamburger thoroughly
  • Drink only pasteurized milk, juice, or cider
  • Wash fruits and vegetables under running water
  • Avoid swallowing lake or pool water while swimming
  • Practice good hygiene
  • Remember to use an instant-read thermometer and adhere to recommended minimum safe cooking temperatures
  • Separate cooked and uncooked meats
  • Thoroughly wash raw fruits and vegetables to remove any trace of soil before eating
  • Reheat precooked meats, such as hot dogs, until they are steaming
  • Wash hands, knives, cutting boards, and other kitchen surfaces after handling raw meat
  • If a server brings you undercooked meat, poultry, or eggs in a restaurant, send it back to the kitchen for further cooking
  • Wash hands with soap after handling reptiles, birds, or baby chicks, and after any contact with pet feces
  • If holding an infant, don't work with raw poultry or meat

This list may seem overwhelming. Don't be intimidated or doubt yourself. Just keep this list handy in case you run into any questions while cooking and preparing food.

Food Poisoning and the Law

If you develop any infectious disease after eating spoiled or tainted food, you may have a legal claim. It all depends on the facts of your case.

Food safety is critical to public health. Many food poisoning lawsuits fall under strict liability. This means you don't have to prove that the manufacturer, restaurant, or grocery store did anything wrong. All your personal injury lawyer must prove is that you ate the food, it was contaminated, and you got sick.

Sometimes, you must prove negligence to recover damages. There are four elements of any negligence claim. These elements include:

  • The defendant owed you a duty of care
  • They breached this duty
  • You suffered an injury
  • The other party's breach directly caused your injuries

With a food poisoning case, you can prove negligence in several ways. You may be able to demonstrate that a sausage manufacturer used a dirty meat grinder, or your attorney may have evidence that a grocery store left milk out overnight and then put it back on the shelves.

Food manufacturers, wholesalers, distributors, retailers, and preparers are responsible for making sure the food they produce and sell is safe. If they fail, they have breached their duty of care and may be negligent.

How Can an Attorney Help?

Most people who develop minor cases of food poisoning don't go to the hospital or urgent care. Your symptoms should dissipate in a matter of hours or days, but if you experience a more severe case you should seek medical attention.

If you believe a third party, such as a grocery store or restaurant, is responsible for your illness, contact a personal injury lawyer. You may have a valid claim for damages. Your attorney will review your case and let you know how best to proceed.

Consult FindLaw's product liability attorney directory to find a lawyer near you.

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