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Facts About...

Foodborne Illness

What is it?

Foodborne illnesses, sometimes called food poisoning, are caused by eating food or drinking beverages contaminated with bacteria, parasites or viruses (microorganisms). Harmful chemicals can also cause foodborne illnesses if they have contaminated food during harvesting or processing. There are many different disease-causing microorganisms that may contaminate foods, so there are many different types of foodborne illnesses. Very young children, pregnant women, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems are at greater risk of serious illness.

How is it spread?

Harmful bacteria are the most common cause of foodborne illnesses and some bacteria may be present on foods upon purchase including raw meats, poultry, seafood and produce. Contamination of foods can also occur during growing, harvesting, processing, storing, shipping or preparation in the home or restaurant. Cross contamination of foods, foods held at improper temperatures and poor personal hygiene habits of food handlers may contribute to foodborne illness. Many harmful microorganisms also can be acquired through recreational or drinking water, from contact with animals and/or their environment, or through person-to-person spread.

Common Foodborne Illnesses:

What do I look for?

Symptoms of foodborne illness may include abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, bloody diarrhea, fever, dehydration and headache. The onset of symptoms is variable depending on the bacteria, parasite or virus causing the illness and can range from one hour to several days or weeks after eating the food. In the case of some foodborne illness, symptoms can persist for several days or weeks. Remember to call the Health Department to report a foodborne illness.

How can I protect myself?

Practice hand hygiene by always washing hands for at least 15 seconds with warm, soapy water before, during and after handling foods, especially raw meat, poultry, seafood, produce or eggs. Wash your hands after using the bathroom, changing diapers, or touching animals and/or their environments.

Cook and reheat foods to the appropriate internal temperature and use a probe thermometer to be sure. Foods are properly cooked only when they are heated long enough and at a high enough temperature to kill the harmful microorganisms that cause illnesses.

Refrigerate hazardous food promptly and hold cold foods in the refrigerator at 4˚C or less or in the freezer at -18˚C or less. Refrigerate perishables, produce, prepared food, and leftovers promptly, dividing large amounts of leftovers into small, shallow containers for quick cooling.

Prevent cross-contamination of harmful bacteria from raw meat, poultry, seafood and their juices by separating these from ready-to-eat foods and by storing on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. Bacteria can spread from one food product to another on contaminated cutting boards, platters, knives, sponges and countertops so clean and disinfect utensils and surfaces often.

Thaw frozen foods in the refrigerator; do not defrost foods at room temperature. Defrosting in the microwave is advisable if the food is immediately cooked.

Wash all fruits and vegetables under running water before eating, cutting or cooking. Use a clean brush to scrub produce with firm or rough surfaces, such as oranges, cantaloupes, potatoes and carrots. (

More information can be obtained from

Durham Region Health Department, Environmental Help Line 905-723-3818 or 1-888-777-9613

April 22, 2013