Food-borne illnesses: What you need to know

Food borne illnessesA single outbreak of a food-borne illness can have a huge impact on a business, not only could it damage brand reputation but also customer loyalty and revenue and growth.

Businesses operating within the food industry from food processing plants to restaurants and bars all need to adhere to the proper food safety standards and regulations to limit the risk of food-borne illnesses.

food borne illnesses

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What is a food-borne illness?

Food-borne illnesses are diseases contracted from the consumption of contaminated food. Food can become contaminated by disease-causing organisms at every stage of the food processing cycle, and the food supply chain.

Contamination can occur through a range of different mediums from failing to cook food correctly to infestations arising from pests such as rodents and cockroaches.

Find out more about how food is contaminated by food-borne illnesses here.  

Other names for food-borne illness

Other names for food borne illnesses

Food-borne illnesses are often referred to as:

  • Food-borne diseases
  • Food-borne infections
  • Food poisoning

The most common of these is food poisoning. The majority of us have suffered from food poisoning or know someone who has. How many times have you come across a story online about a restaurant chain giving one of their customers food poisoning?

How do you get food poisoning

Unfortunately, contracting food poisoning is relatively simple. You can catch a food-borne illness by simply consuming a piece of food contaminated with the disease-causing organisms.

Food poisoning facts

Food poisoning facts

  • According to the CDC, there are 48 million cases of foodborne illnesses reported each year in the US alone. That is around 1 in 6 people.
  • Poultry such as chicken and turkey is the biggest cause of food poisoning. It is estimated that poultry causes around 244,000 cases of food-borne illnesses every year.
  • It is estimated that there are around 250 different food-borne illnesses currently in existence. The majority of them are infections caused by a range of different bacteria, viruses, and parasites.
  • Out of all the food-borne illnesses, salmonella causes the most hospital admissions. It is estimated that around 2,500 food poisoning hospital cases are due to salmonella.

Types of food poisoning

There are a handful of different types of food poisoning currently in existence. Each food-borne disease is caused by one of the following:

  • Bacteria
  • Viruses
  • Parasites
  • Prions
  • Chemicals

Common food-borne illnesses

Common types of food-borne illnesses

Of the 250 different types of food poisoning the most common are:

  • Salmonella
  • E.coli
  • Norovirus
  • Mad cow disease
  • Food-borne trematodes


Salmonella is one of the most common food-borne illnesses, and also the most well known. Salmonella is actually the name of the bacteria, with the disease it causes actually called salmonellosis. Salmonella is estimated to affect tens of millions of people worldwide, according to the WHO.

Symptoms of salmonella usually develop after 12 to 72 hours of infection and lasts around 4-7 days. Most patients make a full recovery with little to no medical treatment.


Escherichia coli, E.coli for short is a bacteria commonly found in your gut with most strains being harmless. However, the strains Enterotoxigenic E.coli (ETEC) and Enterohemorrhagic Escherichia coli (EHEC) are known to cause food poisoning.

The majority of the time patients recover from an ETEC and EHEC infection with no medical support. Although, around 10% of EHEC cases develop into Haemolytic Syndrome, a life-threatening disease.


Norovirus is a contagious food-borne illness which causes inflammation of the stomach and intestines. It is one of the most common causes of gastroenteritis in the US.

Symptoms develop between 12 and 48 days of infection with recovery occurring within 1-3 days.

Mad cow disease

Bovine spongiform encephalopathy commonly referred to as mad cow disease causes a spongy degeneration in the brain and spinal cord. It is caused by cattle feeding on the remains of other cattle.

Mad cow disease can be caught by consuming beef products infected with mad cow disease. It can be quite hard to diagnose as symptoms begin to only show during the later stages of infection.

In humans, mad cow disease is known as Creutzfeldt-Jakob (vCJD).

Food-borne trematodes

Food-borne trematodes is a parasite and can only be transmitted through food. It is estimated that around 56 million people across the globe suffer from this food-borne illness.

This disease is caused by the trematode worm. Food can become contaminated by the larvae of this parasite and can cause severe liver and lung disease in its host.

Find out more information on the different types of food-borne illnesses here.

Food-borne illness symptoms

food poisoning symptoms

For the most part, the majority of the different types of food-borne illnesses show the same symptoms. However, the intensity of the symptoms, the time it takes for them to develop, and their duration differs between each illness.

Common symptoms of foodborne illness include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Nausea
  • Fever
  • Vomiting

How to prevent food-borne illnesses

Fortunately, there is a range of different ways to prevent food-borne illnesses from developing.

Businesses operating within the food industry must adhere to the proper food safety regulations and standards such as the HACCP and the HARPC. Each country has their own set of food safety standards which all businesses must adhere to.

The World Health Organization has a variety of different documents, such as the five keys to safer food, as part of their global strategy to decrease the burden of foodborne diseases.

Ways to prevent food-borne illnesses

There are a handful of different techniques which can be implemented to reduce the risk of food-borne illnesses. These include, but are not limited to:

Proper hand hygiene

food borne illness prevention - hand hygiene

The harmful organisms, which lead to food-borne illnesses can often be carried on a person’s hands. Ensuring that proper hand hygiene is followed can go a long way in preventing food poisoning.

Hand hygiene should be applied:

  • Before and after handling food, especially raw food
  • During preparation
  • After using the washroom

If wearing gloves, remembering to dispose of them safely and regularly can help in your prevention efforts.

Separating foods

food borne illness prevention - separate foods

Raw foods, particularly meats, poultry and seafood can harbour a range of bacteria and viruses which can be linked to the spread of food poisoning. These organisms can infect multiple products during food preparation, transportation and storage. Because of this, it is important to separate raw and cooked foods in terms of storage as well as using different utensils whilst handling food.

Food hygiene

food borne illness prevention - Cleaning

Adhering to the proper food hygiene regulations issued by the government will help avoid the spread of food-borne illnesses.

Good food hygiene consists of anything between cooking food to the correct temperatures to ensuring all food preparation areas and utensils are thoroughly cleaned and disinfected after each use.


food borne illness prevention - storage

Failing to follow the correct food storage methods can lead to food-borne infections being spread. Unfortunately, room temperature provides the microorganisms that cause food poisoning with the best conditions to flourish and multiply.

Storing food at temperatures below 5℃ and above 60℃ (63℃ in the UK) helps to slow down and stop the growth of these microorganisms. However, it is important to note some of these pathogens can still flourish in temperatures below 5℃. It is also important to follow the correct storage instructions for each food type.


food borne illness prevention - water

Water is used a lot in food preparation from cleaning surfaces to washing food products. Ensuring that the water used is safe and free from bacteria, viruses and other harmful pathogens can help in preventing food-borne illnesses.

Find out more about preventing food-borne illnesses here.

Food-borne illnesses and pests

When it comes to preventing the spread of food-borne diseases, implementing proper pest control practices play an important role.

Pests such as flies, cockroaches and rodents can spread the diseases such as salmonella, E.coli, and norovirus through defecating and regurgitation in food preparation areas.

Some pests can also carry the microorganisms that can cause food-borne illnesses on their body, allowing for them to be transferred as they travel through the premises.

Contact Rentokil for expert advice and solutions in controlling pests in your business.

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