What is a foodborne illness? Definition and examples

A foodborne illness is an illness that originated from food. We also refer to it as a foodborne disease and colloquially as food poisoning. Any disease or illness that resulted from contaminated food is a foodborne illness. Bacteria, viruses, parasites, fungi, and other poisons, for example, may have contaminated the food that caused an illness.

If a heavy metal contaminates food, and people eat it, they may subsequently get ill. If they do, they have a foodborne illness.

We call the substances that get into food and make people ill ‘food contaminants.’

A public health problem

Foodborne illnesses encompass a very wide spectrum of illnesses. Globally, foodborne diseases are a growing problem. Not only are they a public health problem in developing nations, but also in the advanced economies.

Economists say that in some countries, the economic burden of foodborne illnesses affects GDP growth. GDP stands for gross domestic product.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says the following regarding foodborne illnesses:

They are the result of ingestion of foodstuffs contaminated with microorganisms or chemicals.”

“The contamination of food may occur at any stage in the process from food production to consumption (‘farm to fork’) and can result from environmental contamination, including pollution of water, soil or air.”

Foodborne Illness
Medicine.Net has the following definition of foodborne illness: “A disease caused by consuming contaminated food or drink.”

A foodborne illness typically arises from improper preparation and handling of food. It also arises from improper food storage.

Therefore, good hygiene practice is crucial. It is vital not only before preparing food but also during and afterward.

Foodborne illness – symptoms

Gastrointestinal symptoms are the most common symptoms of foodborne diseases. These are symptoms that people experience in their digestive system. Stomachache, diarrhea, vomiting, and nausea, for example, are gastrointestinal symptoms.

However, a foodborne illness may have immunological or neurological symptoms. Patients may also have gynecological and many other types of symptoms.

In fact, some contaminated foodstuffs can cause multiple organ failure and even cancer.

The most common symptoms of foodborne illnesses are stomach cramps, diarrhea, and vomiting. Nausea is also a common symptom.

The FDA says that the threats from foodborne illnesses are numerous. While some cause relatively mild discomfort, others, on the other hand, may be life-threatening.

FDA stands for Food and Drug Administration. It is the US regulatory agency in charge of medications, medical devices, food, and tobacco products.

Foodborne illness – vulnerable groups

Although anybody can become infected and develop a foodborne illness, some people are more vulnerable than others.

According to the CDC, the following groups of people are more likely to develop a foodborne illness:

  • Babies and young children.
  • Older adults.
  • Pregnant women.
  • People with kidney or liver disease, HIV/AIDS, or diabetes, i.e., those whose immune systems are more likely to be weak. Patients receiving radiation treatment or chemotherapy are also more vulnerable.

The letters CDC stand for Center for Disease Control and Prevention. It is the leading national public health institute of the United States.

Most common foodborne germs

United States

According to the CDC:

Forty-eight million people get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from foodborne diseases each year in the United States.”

The five most common germs that cause foodborne disease in the United States are:

  • Norovirus. Number of illnesses: 5,461,731.
  • Salmonella. Number of illnesses: 1,027,561.
  • Clostridium perfringens. Number of illnesses: 965,958.
  • Campylobacter. Number of illnesses: 845,024.
  • Staphylococcus aureus (Staph). Number of illnesses: 241,148.

(Number of illnesses = annually. Data Source: ‘Burden of Foodborne Illness: Findings,’ CDC.)

United Kingdom

Campylobacter is the most common cause of foodborne illness in the United Kingdom. The bacterium most commonly contaminates poultry and unpasteurized milk. It also contaminates meat.

According to Britain’s Food Standards Agency, Campylobacter causes more than 280,000 instances of food poisoning annually.

In fact, studies have found that the bacterium is present in more than 65% of fresh chicken carcasses.

According to HawkSafety.com, Campylobacter causes approximately 100 deaths annually and costs the British economy £900 million each year.

Video – Foodborne illness: What Problem?

This is one of a series of videos that the Florida Integrated Food Safety Center of Excellence has produced. It introduces new team members to the concept of foodborne diseases.