What is Foodborne Illness?

Foodborne illness is probably more common in the United States than most people realize. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control estimate that nearly 76 million people are afflicted each year by some type of foodborne illness. With this type of significant affect on the public, it is important that everyone be aware of what foodborne illness is, how to identify it, and what to do about it.

Foodborne Illness Explained

Simply put, a foodborne illness occurs when a person ingests food that is contaminated with some form of bacteria (E. coli, salmonella, etc..). While most people tend to think of foodborne illness as something that is contracted as a result of undercooked foods, the reality is that it begins with contamination at some point during the actual processing of food. Unfortunately, food can be contaminated at any point from the growth of new crops to the final preparation of food, which is why there is such a high risk of foodborne illness occurring in the United States.

If the conditions under which an animal is slaughtered are not clean, then what can be said about the food that you eat? Think about the fresh tomatoes  that are out on the produce stands in your local grocery store: What types of bacteria were they exposed to while they were growing in a crop field? Even further than that, how were they handled after they were harvested? As you can see, the point at which you prepare food in your kitchen is only the ending point to such a long process.

Signs of Foodborne Illness

Most cases of foodborne illness are minor and do not cause life-threatening conditions; however, the CDC does concur that approximately 5,000 people die from foodborne illness every year, so being aware of the signs of infection is important. Here are some of the signs:

  • Mild-to-severe abdominal pain
  • Vomiting and diarrhea (watch for black or bloody stools)
  • High fever
  • Dehydration

These signs are very reminiscent of the traditional flu, which is why many people fail to seek prompt medical treatment. However, if foodborne illness is suspected, especially in pregnant women or young children, it is imperative to see a physician as soon as possible.


A diagnosis can usually be made after a thorough review of the symptoms and a full account of food that was recently eaten. Unfortunately, there is no magic test that can identify a foodborne illness, but fecal tests can be used to determine if any bacteria is present in the body, often helping to make the correlation between food contamination and the onset of the symptoms.


Most cases of foodborne illness are not severe enough to warrant any real medical intervention; however, the extent of the situation may not always be apparent initially. This is why you should always seek medical attention as soon as you suspect a foodborne illness. In most cases, consuming fluids can help the body to wash out the bacteria from the system. In cases where the bacteria have been allowed to grow and multiply, hospitalization may be needed to ensure proper fluid intake and to monitor kidney function until the bacteria can be completely eliminated.


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