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What Is Food Poisoning?

You enjoy a lovely dinner at a new restaurant. Everything seemed great at the meal, but you didn't feel so good later. You spend the night and the next few days vomiting, with abdominal pain, a fever, and nausea. Was it the soft cheese appetizer or the shellfish you ate? Was it some other food item? You go to the doctor, and they diagnose you with food poisoning.

Food poisoning, also known as foodborne illness, is very common. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in six Americans gets sick from food poisoning yearly.

This article provides an overview of food poisoning and provides resources if you or a loved one has suffered a foodborne illness. It also explains how and whether you should bring a personal injury case under tort law.

Food Poisoning Stats and Facts

Foodborne disease occurs when you consume food contaminated with disease-causing microbes (pathogens), such as bacteria. Foodborne viruses, parasites, and other toxins can also make you sick. Because microbes can spread in various ways, it's not always clear whether you have food poisoning or some other disease.

An estimated 48 million food poisoning cases occur annually in the United States. Most of these cases are mild and last only a day or two, but some patients' issues are more serious. The CDC estimates that over 128,000 people visit the hospital due to food poisoning. Another 3,000 people die from this illness annually.

The most severe cases of food poisoning occur in the following:

  • Older adults
  • Young children
  • Those with weakened immune system function
  • Pregnant women
  • Healthy people exposed to a very high dose of an organism

You may have a valid product liability claim if you become sick after eating at a restaurant or buying food from your grocery store retailer. Whether to file a product liability lawsuit depends on whether you can prove the other party is responsible for your illness. A successful product liability case also requires your product liability lawyer to prove that you suffered damages.

Types of Food Poisoning

Because different diseases have different symptoms, there is no one syndrome that constitutes food poisoning or a foodborne illness. However, contamination by certain bacteria is the most common cause of food poisoning.

There are more than 250 types of food poisoning. However, some foodborne illnesses are more common than others. In the U.S., there are several kinds of common food contamination, which include the following:

  • Escherichia coli (E. coli)
  • Salmonella
  • Listeria
  • Norovirus

While norovirus makes up 46% of all food poisoning cases, salmonella and listeria are more dangerous. For example, according to the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), norovirus only accounts for 5% of all food-related deaths, while salmonella causes more than 20%. Listeria is even more dangerous. Listeria is responsible for more than 50% of all food-related deaths.

Other types of food poisoning you may read about in the news include botulism, hepatitis, and campylobacter.

E. coli

E. coli, or Escherichia coli, is caused by bacteria in animals' digestive tracts. When people eat raw or undercooked meat, they are likely to ingest these bacteria. Within hours, they may start to experience symptoms of E. coli.

These symptoms include the following:

  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Stomach cramps
  • Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS)

In severe cases of E. coli, patients may suffer from kidney failure, stroke, coma, and death.


Salmonella exists in the digestive tracts of animals and humans. You will usually find it on fresh vegetables and fruit. Animal feces from the water and soil makes its way onto the crops.

If you don't correctly wash these foods, you may get sick. The CDC suggests thoroughly washing your leafy greens, lettuce, carrots, melons, and all other fruits and vegetables before serving them.

The symptoms of salmonella include all of those listed above for E. coli, as well as the following:

  • Severe diarrhea
  • Headaches
  • Fever

In extreme cases, patients may experience arthritis, arterial infections, and endocarditis.


Listeria can come from contaminated water, undercooked meat, raw foods, and cooked foods left at room temperature for too long. This bacteria can also impact your fruits and vegetables due to contaminated soil and water.

The scary thing about listeria is that it can survive cooking and freezing. Even if you cook your contaminated food products, you can still get sick. According to the CDC, physicians diagnose more than 1,600 people with listeria, and approximately 200 people die annually.

Older adults and young children are highly vulnerable to this foodborne illness. Pregnant women must also be careful, as listeria can cause miscarriages and stillbirths.

Differences From Other Illnesses

It can be challenging to distinguish food poisoning from other illnesses with similar symptoms, such as the stomach flu or viral gastroenteritis. Many people who have norovirus assume they have a stomach bug.

If your symptoms become unbearable, you should seek medical attention immediately. Even if you're wrong and it's just a virus or flu, it's better to be safe than sorry. The healthcare professionals will run the necessary tests to determine if you have a foodborne disease. If so, they may administer an IV with fluids and give you antibiotics.

For some foodborne illnesses, such as listeria, you will know that you're sick. The symptoms will be severe and will appear anywhere from 48 to 72 hours after you consume contaminated food.

Food Poisoning and Cross-Contamination

Avoid cross-contamination when it comes to your food. Once a contaminated food touches other food or cutting boards/utensils that touched the contaminated food, there may be cross-contamination. If one portion of ground beef is infected, it will cross-contaminate all other meat once mixed.

You must take reasonable care to consistently wash your utensils and cutting boards with hot, soapy water. The CDC also suggests you clean your countertops with a fresh cloth whenever you cook meat, poultry, eggs, dairy, seafood, fruits, and vegetables.

Preventing Food Poisoning

To prevent food poisoning, you must employ food safety handling techniques. This is especially true when handling raw meat, vegetables, and fruits. You should also ensure you thoroughly cook meat.

Handle and consume unpasteurized milk cautiously. These dairy products may carry harmful bacteria that pasteurization would kill.

Thoroughly wash your hands and cooking utensils when cooking. Wash your hands with warm, soapy water whenever you touch raw meat, raw eggs, or other raw foods. Wash all cutting boards, knives, and other cooking utensils in warm, soapy water.

You can also prevent food poisoning by avoiding foods the FDA recalls. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) posts food recalls 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.

Filing a Legal Claim for Food Poisoning

Food poisoning can cause severe illness and pain. Food poisoning can also cause you to rack up thousands of dollars in medical bills and other damages. To explore your legal options, you can speak to a personal injury attorney. They will assess your claim, determine if you have a strict product liability lawsuit, and provide skilled legal advice if you are considering joining a class action suit.

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