What is Food Poisoning?
By FindLaw Staff | Legally reviewed by Garrett Monteagudo, Esq. | Last reviewed November 28, 2022
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You and your significant other enjoyed a lovely dinner at a new restaurant in your town. Everything seemed great at the meal, but later you think something just isn't right. You spend the night, and maybe even the next few days, with abdominal pain, a fever, nausea, and even vomiting. Was it the soft cheese appetizer? Or the shellfish you ate? You go to the doctor and are told what you pretty much already know: you have food poisoning.
Food poisoning, also called "foodborne illness," is very common. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in six Americans gets sick from food poisoning every year.
This article provides a brief overview of food poisoning, and resources if you or your loved one have suffered from a foodborne illness.
What Is Food Poisoning?
Food poisoning (also called "foodborne illness") is caused by consuming foods contaminated with disease-causing microbes (pathogens), such as bacteria. Foodborne viruses, parasites, and other toxins (poisonous chemicals or harmful substances produced by microbes and other living cells or organisms) can also cause illness. Because microbes can spread in various ways, it is not always certain whether or not a disease is foodborne.
An estimated 76 million cases of foodborne disease occur each year in the United States. The great majority of these cases are mild and cause symptoms for only a day or two. Some cases are more serious. The CDC estimates that there are 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths related to foodborne diseases each year. The most severe cases of food poisoning tend to occur in older adults, young children, those with weakened immune system function, pregnant women, and healthy people exposed to a very high dose of an organism.
Types of Food Poisoning
More than 250 different types of food poisoning have been identified. Because different diseases have different symptoms, there is no one "syndrome" that can be referred to as "food poisoning" or "foodborne illness". However, the most common cause of food poisoning is contamination by certain bacteria. Food poisoning can be caused by bacteria such as Escherichia coli (E. coli), salmonella, campylobacter, clostridium, shigella, and listeria.
These bacteria can come from contaminated water, undercooked meat, raw foods, or cooked foods that have sat at room temperature for too long. Once a contaminated food touches other food (or cutting boards or utensils that touched the contaminated food), there may be cross-contamination. That's why, even if one portion of ground beef is contaminated, it will cross-contaminate all of the other meat once it is mixed.
Once these bacteria enter the body, they will cause symptoms. Food poisoning often negatively impacts the nervous system. Common symptoms of food poisoning include nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, severe dehydration, and diarrhea. The most extreme cases can be linked to certain severe conditions, such as kidney failure or hemolytic uremic syndrome.
For more detailed information about the different types of food poisoning, please visit FindLaw's article on Types of Food Poisoning.
Preventing Food Poisoning
To prevent food poisoning, it's important to abide by proper food safety handling techniques, especially when handling raw meat, raw vegetables, and raw fruits Also, it is important to make sure you thoroughly cook meat. Handle and consume unpasteurized milk with caution, as these dairy products may carry harmful bacteria that would've been killed by the pasteurization process.
You should thoroughly wash your hands and your cooking utensils when cooking. Each time you touch raw meat, raw eggs, or other raw foods, you should wash your hands with warm, soapy water. Wash all cutting boards, knives, and other cooking utensils in warm, soapy water, too.
You can also prevent food poisoning by avoiding foods that have been recalled. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) posts food recall alerts on its website. The FDA lists the date, brand name, product description, and reason for recall on the alert.
For more tips on preventing food poisoning, visit FindLaw's article on Preventing Food Poisoning: At Home.
What To Do If You Think You Have Food Poisoning
If you believe you have food poisoning, it is important that you speak to your healthcare provider. You will especially want to contact your doctor if you are a higher-risk individual, such as an older adult or pregnant woman. You may require rehydration, restoration of electrolytes, or other medical attention. Although it is less likely, food poisoning can be life-threatening, so take your health seriously. Don't put off seeing a doctor.
Once you have received medical treatment, you will be left with a medical bill. Considering the example earlier, you may want to take legal action to hold the restaurant accountable for your bout with food poisoning. However, it may be difficult to do this because it may be hard to prove what actually caused you to become ill. To bring a successful claim, you will need to prove that the food you ate was, in fact, contaminated. Second, you will need to prove that this contaminated food was also the cause of your illness.
For more information about taking legal action after suffering from food poisoning, you should visit FindLaw's Food Poisoning and the Law page.
Filing a Legal Claim for Food Poisoning
Food poisoning is no joke. It can cause serious illness and pain in the infected individual. Food poisoning can also rack up medical bills.
If you are interested in exploring your options for recovering those medical bills, you may want to speak to a personal injury attorney. This attorney will help assess your claim and give skilled legal advice on your specific situation.
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.
Contact a qualified product liability attorney to make sure your rights are protected.