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Foodborne Pathogens

As a food consumer, there are many methods to reduce the risk of foodborne illness. You may diligently use your meat thermometer, keep raw and cooked meats separate, wash your hands and countertops, and follow all the other tips from trusted experts, but for a variety of reasons, pathogens may still find their way into your food, causing illness. An estimated 600 million people – almost 1 in 10 worldwide – get sick and 420,000 die from consuming contaminated food or water each year. In the U.S. alone, 48 million people get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 lose their lives to foodborne illnesses.

There are 31 notable foodborne bacteria, viruses, parasites, toxins, and chemicals that cause food and water contamination globally. Improved food safety and technology has played a significant role in helping to mitigate their impact; however, outbreaks still exist. The following ten pathogens often cause foodborne illnesses.
 

Campylobacter

Description and Symptoms

Common Source(s)

Duration of Illness

A bacterium causing diarrhea, cramping, abdominal pain, and fever. In some cases, diarrhea may be bloody and may be accompanied by nausea and vomiting.

Raw and undercooked poultry and other meats and fish, unpasteurized dairy products, and contaminated water.

2 to 10 days

Clostridium botulinum

Description and Symptoms

Common Source(s)

Duration of Illness

This organism produces a toxin that is among the deadliest known to humans, causing blurred vision, double vision, drooping eyelids and difficulty breathing. Modern food processing has lowered its incidence tremendously. Still, because of its environmental presence and resilience, vigilance against its growth and contamination in food is paramount.

For infants, honey and products containing honey.

 

For infants, children, and adults, improperly home-canned or preserved foods, including low-acid vegetables and fermented fish, improperly canned commercial foods, and herb-infused oils.

Variable

Clostridium perfringens

Description and Symptoms

Common Source(s)

Duration of Illness

A bacterium causing diarrhea and abdominal cramps within 6 to 24 hours.

Raw beef and poultry.

 

Sometimes referred to as the “buffet germ” because it grows fastest in large portions of food such as casseroles or gravies left in steam tables or at room temperature for too long.

Typically less than 24 hours

 

In severe cases, 1-2 weeks

Cyclospora cayetanensis

Description and Symptoms

Common Source(s)

Duration of Illness

A single-cell parasite common in the tropics that causes watery diarrhea with frequent, sometimes explosive, bowel movements, weight loss, nausea, abdominal cramps, and fatigue.

Fresh produce harvested from tropical regions such as raspberries, basil, cilantro, snow peas, and certain varieties of lettuce.

Ranges from a few days to a month or longer

E. Coli

Description and Symptoms

Common Source(s)

Duration of Illness

A diverse group of bacteria that causes severe diarrhea that is often bloody, abdominal pain, severe stomach pain, and vomiting. Particular serotypes, such as E. coli O157:H7, can cause Hemolytic Uremia Syndrome, resulting in organ damage and even death.

Raw or undercooked ground beef, raw fruits and vegetables including lettuce, spinach, and sprouts, unpasteurized juices or dairy products, contaminated water.

5-10 days

Listeria monocytogenes

Description and Symptoms

Common Source(s)

Duration of Illness

A bacterium causing fever, muscle aches, diarrhea, and other gastrointestinal issues. In more severe cases, it can cause headache, stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance, and convulsions in addition to fever and muscle aches. Pregnant women are more susceptible to infection from listeria, potentially resulting in miscarriage, stillbirth, premature delivery, and infection of the newborn. Listeria can grow at temperatures as low as 4 degrees C, making it a particularly stubborn food safety risk.

Raw or unpasteurized milk and dairy products, soft cheese made with unpasteurized milk, raw fruits and vegetables, refrigerated meat spreads, ready-to-eat deli meats, hot dogs, refrigerated smoked seafood, raw and undercooked meat, poultry, and seafood.

Ranges from a few days to several weeks

Norovirus

Description and Symptoms

Common Source(s)

Duration of Illness

A highly contagious virus that causes stomach pain, nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting. Young children and older adults are particularly susceptible to contracting the virus.

Fresh produce, shellfish, meats, ready-to-eat foods (such as salads, sandwiches, ice cream, or cookies) prepared by someone who is infected, contaminated water or ice.

Typically 1-3 days

 

Young children, older adults, and hospitalized patients may experience symptoms for 4-6 days

Salmonella

Description and Symptoms

Common Source(s)

Duration of Illness

A bacterium commonly found in raw food products, causing fever, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and vomiting. In severe cases, enteric fever may result.

Meats, eggs, fruits, spices, and raw, untreated tree nuts.

4-7 days

Staphylococcus aureus

Description and Symptoms

Common Source(s)

Duration of Illness

A common bacterium found on human skin and in noses, that has the potential to create a harmful toxin that can contaminate food when it is touched by those preparing it. Symptoms include diarrhea, abdominal cramps, nausea, and vomiting.

Unpasteurized milk and dairy products, as well as foods that require extensive handling or are not cooked after preparation, including sliced meats, sandwiches, salads such as tuna, chicken, potato or macaroni, and pastries.

1 day

Vibrio vulinficus

Description and Symptoms

Common Source(s)

Duration of Illness

Naturally-occurring bacteria that grows and thrives in warm water, causing watery diarrhea, often accompanied by abdominal cramping, nausea, vomiting, fever, and chills when consumed.

Raw or undercooked shellfish, particularly oysters.

3 days

The last thing anyone wants is to experience any of the previously mentioned symptoms, but unfortunately, it’s sometimes unavoidable. Anyone can get food poisoning, but adults over the age of 65, children under 5, people with weakened immune systems, and pregnant women are most susceptible to getting sick and experiencing severe symptoms. Be sure to follow basic food safety tips and avoid common sources of foodborne illnesses to protect yourself from an unwelcome invader.

 

September is Food Safety Education Month

As September winds down, we continue to share helpful information, tips, and resources on IFT’s Brain Food blog, as well as on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Follow us and share these resources with your networks to help spread the word about the importance of food safety education and how we all can make sure our food is safe to eat. And, be sure to use hashtags #foodsafetymonth and #foodsafety when you do.

 

References

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Most Common Foodborne Pathogens.” 30 May 2017. https://www.eatright.org/homefoodsafety/safety-tips/food-poisoning/most-common-foodborne-pathogens

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Foodborne Illnesses and Germs.” 16 February 2018. https://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/foodborne-germs.html

Food and Drug Administration. “Most Common Foodborne Illnesses.” https://www.fda.gov/files/food/published/Most-Common-Foodborne-Illnesses-%28PDF%29.pdf

Stop Foodborne Illness. “Top 8 Deadliest & Most Common Types of Foodborne Pathogens.” 9 August 2016. https://stopfoodborneillness.org/fsn-8-common-deadly-foodborne-pathogens/

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. “Bacteria and Viruses.” 12 April 2019. https://www.foodsafety.gov/food-poisoning/bacteria-and-viruses

World Health Organization. “Food Safety.” 4 June 2019. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/food-safety

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