Foodborne Illness

A foodborne illness outbreak is defined as: “more than two non-householders who develop gastroenteritis (acute onset vomiting, diarrhea, or both) at about the same time after eating food from the same source.”

For an outbreak to occur, something must have happened to contaminate a batch of food that was eaten by a group of people. Often, a combination of events contributes to the outbreak. For example: a contaminated food may be left out at room temperature for many hours, allowing the bacteria to multiply to high numbers, and then be insufficiently cooked to kill the bacteria.

More than 250 different foodborne diseases have been identified to date – not inclusive of chemical agents. Most of these diseases are infections caused by a variety of bacteria, viruses, and parasites. Of course, foods that are contaminated with poisonous chemicals or harmful substances can also cause serious illness. Symptoms of foodborne illness vary by disease, but with bacterial or viral infections the most common are nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea – usually of unusual severity. Food poisoning with a toxic chemical will usually show severe symptoms very quickly, as will food allergies. Immediate medical attention is called for in each of these cases.

Common Myths Of Foodborne Illness

As you attempt to determine if you have a foodborne illness and what the potential source could be, avoid these common misperceptions.

The last thing I ate is what made me sick.

Not necessarily. It depends on how long it takes for certain microbes to grow inside your body and cause illness. Write down what you ate, where you ate, and when you ate in as much detail as possible. Accurate recall of this information is critical.

If other people ate what I ate and did not become ill, that particular meal could not be the source of my illness.

Not necessarily. It is well documented that the microbes that cause foodborne illness are not always uniformly distributed in a food item. One person may consume hamburger prepared from a package of ground beef and become seriously ill with E. coli O157:H7 or Salmonella, while his dining companion consumes ground beef from the same package and remains healthy. Different people can react differently to different pathogens and toxins.

How can I find out if I am sick because of something I ate or drank?

This requires a trip to the emergency room or a physician. The most common way to determine what has made you ill is through a stool sample.

Should I report my illness to the Health Department?

Yes. It is important to let the Health Department know if you think you have gotten ill from a restaurant. You can contact us by phone, 503‑842‑3902.

FDA’s Bad Bug Book