What Is a Foodborne Illness? With 6 Effective Preventive Measures

Eating junk food from the market is a common practice. The lack of time makes people do everything in a hurry, and it’s easy to skip meals.

Convenient and easy snacking has taken over our diets. Complications with junk food include the risk of developing diseases like diabetes, and may also lead to foodborne illnesses.

1. What is a Foodborne Illness?

a person holding a plate with a sandwich on it
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Foodborne illness happens when we eat or drink something containing harmful pathogens, namely parasites, bacteria, and viruses. Nearly 1 in 10 humans suffer from it every year.

Everything we eat contains some good bacteria that are advantageous for gut health. But we should be worried about the not-so-good bacteria.

Many people travel the world and eat many different types of food. Well, sometimes, when your stomach is allergic to certain foods, it can cause a foodborne illness, too. Getting diarrhea and vomiting in a foreign country is one of the traveler’s worst nightmares.

Though it won’t last long, it will surely drain your energy and enthusiasm. Hence, extra caution should be taken when traveling.

a picture of a human body
By julien Tromeur/ Unsplash copyrights 2022

Foodborne illness is generally caused by consuming contaminated food and drinks. There are many sources through which harmful pathogens can be transferred to the body, and these are listed below. 

2.1 Naturally Occurring Chemicals 

We usually savor the flavor of raw sprouts, thinking that they’re healthy. Well, it is, but there’s a twist. These raw sprouts are often grown inside the soil, and they most likely contain harmful microbes. Therefore, boiling or steaming raw sprouts should be done. This would kill the microbes and make them safe for consumption.

Corn and cereals are staple foods for nearly half of the population. Surprisingly, they contain naturally occurring toxins that cause long-term effects.1 Hence, moderate consumption of these products should be practiced.

2.2 Raw Meat 

meat on top of ice
By Victoria Shes/ Unsplash copyrights 2019

We often enjoy having sushi and a medium-rare steak. However, these raw products are the carrier of harmful bacteria that causes many foodborne infections and illnesses. Sometimes even raw veggies are not that great for your gut. These products shall be cooked properly for their safe consumption.

2.3 Contamination and Pollutants

We often see factories disposing of their waste in rivers, which leads to contamination of the water. The same water is then transferred to the sea, where fish live. Hence, marine life becomes contaminated by the water. Foodborne illness is also caused by microbial contaminants in spices.

Moreover, the use of plastic is the greatest environmental hazard today. As a human being is completely dependent on the environment for survival, it is a health hazard too. The plastic waste is non-biodegradable and hence pollutes the soil. This can then contaminate the fruits and vegetable produce which in turn causes many foodborne diseases and illnesses.

2.4 Contaminated Water

Probably the leading cause of foodborne illnesses is drinking contaminated water. In most countries, drinking water straight from the tap is prohibited. But when we drink water from any roadside stall, we don’t know what type it is. Hence, if a person drinks it, he’s prone to having diarrhea and other foodborne illnesses. Often, a person’s stomach can negate the bad bacteria in food; drinking contaminated water is just too much to bear. 

3. Types of Foodborne Illnesses 

What Is a Foodborne Illness? a man holding his hand up as he cough
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There are many different harmful pathogens 2through which foodborne illnesses are caused. So, the illnesses are divided into different types based on it. There are nearly 250 types of foodborne illnesses in this world.

However, 90 percent of all foodborne illnesses are caused by pathogens. The types of foodborne diseases based on these pathogens are listed below.

3.1 Norovirus 

The most commonly known pathogen for causing foodborne illness is the Norwalk virus. It is responsible for nearly 5.3-5.5 million cases in a year. The reason for so many cases is how easily it can be transmitted. It can be transmitted from one person to another in a fraction of a second.

Even if a person has the Norwalk virus, they can easily cross-contaminate the food. It is even resistant to freezing, boiling, and some disinfectants, which is why it’s so common.   

Norovirus is “THE” illness you often get after eating at a restaurant. It causes discomfort in your stomach and results in stomach flu. 

3.2 Clostridium Perfringens 

The bacteria which ranks just below the norovirus as the leading cause of foodborne illness is C. perfringens. It is one of the most common causes of food poisoning worldwide. Nearly 1 million cases are reported per year in the USA alone.

The reason for its prevalence is often related to the fact that it multiplies too much in the “Danger Zone,” which is the temperature between 4.5 and 60 degrees Celsius. Most often, we cook the food that we eat, which kills the C. perfringens bacteria inside the food. 

The problem occurs when we eat the meat kept outside for so long like in a buffet. It generally cools down, and thinking nothing else, we just eat it. Also, sometimes, when we cook steak, it remains undercooked inside.

This also becomes a breeding ground for Clostridium perfringens3. Hence, we should always check the inside temperature of our steak with a food thermometer. 

Usually, a symptom of diarrhea is visible only after 12 hours, and it can last up to a day.

3.3 E. coli

This bacterium is the most popular one. Escherichia coli bacteria is the most prevalent all over the news channel. It is constantly discussed and debated. However, most of the strains of E. coli are essential to the smooth functioning of our intestinal tract.

However, some strains are hazardous for humans and can even be life-threatening. These strains are generally found in raw poultry, raw milk, and raw vegetables. 

There’s a strain of E. coli virus known as 0157:H7. It is the deadliest of all. It has a toxin called Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC). This toxin can directly affect your kidney and cause kidney failure. It can even prove to be fatal in some cases.

4. How Can You Prevent Foodborne Illness?

We can agree on one thing that nobody wants: foodborne illnesses. Even if it mostly lasts a single day, it surely does some damage. To prevent them, there are some simple preventive measures that you should follow religiously. These habits are listed below.

  1. Thoroughly rinse your hands under water for at least 20 seconds with soap. This is a non-negotiable practice. If you wash your hands properly, nearly half of the foodborne illness could be negated.
  2. Avoid cross-contamination of food products. Always keep raw meat separated from raw veggies. This can prevent pathogens from traveling from one food product to another.
  3. Never consume raw veggies, raw milk, or undercooked meat. These are literally heaven for harmful bacteria. Cook the meat until it reaches a safe internal temperature range.
  4. Always consume the cooked food within a few hours of cooking. Try not to eat old or stale food as far as possible.
  5. Avoid drinking tap water. Nearly every foodborne illness is related to drinking contaminated water. Always use a water purifier to kill all harmful pathogens. When outside, always go for packaged drinking water. 
  6. Lastly, always wash raw fruits and veggies without fail. Wash all the cooking utensils with bleach powder, too. Try to avoid using disinfectant spray as far as possible.

5. Conclusion

After analyzing the facts, foodborne illnesses can be prevented. With adequate awareness, we can avoid harmful pathogens.

Maintaining proper hygiene is the key prospect in leading a healthy life. Hygiene alone can make you resistant to many kinds of illnesses and diseases. Health combined with hygiene is a pathway to a peaceful life.    

  1. Frangópulos, Máximo, et al. “Short-term and long-term effects of the toxic dinoflagellate Alexandrium minutum on the copepod Acartia clausi.” Marine Ecology Progress Series 203 (2000): 161-169. ↩︎
  2. Luksienė, Z., and A. Zukauskas. “Prospects of photosensitization in control of pathogenic and harmful micro‐organisms.” Journal of Applied Microbiology 107.5 (2009): 1415-1424. ↩︎
  3. McClane, Bruce A., Susan L. Robertson, and Jihong Li. “Clostridium perfringens.” Food microbiology: fundamentals and frontiers (2012): 465-489. ↩︎

Last Updated on by Sathi Chakraborty, MSc Biology


Sathi Chakraborty, MSc Biology
  1. Stay safe and keep those harmful pathogens at bay by following these food safety tips! Remember, a little extra care in your food habits can go a long way in ensuring a healthy and enjoyable dining experience. Bon appétit!

  2. This article is a must-read for anyone who wants to safeguard their health. Knowing the signs and when to worry about foodborne illness is essential information we all should be aware of.The guidelines on when to be vigilant about foodborne illness are clear and helpful.

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