Foodborne illness can affect anyone who eats contaminated food. However, certain groups of people are more susceptible to becoming sick with a foodborne illness. These groups include:
- Pregnant women;
- Infants and young children;
- Older adults;
- People with weakened immune systems from medical conditions, such as diabetes, liver disease, kidney disease, organ transplants, or HIV/AIDS.
- People taking certain kinds of medications for medical conditions – or receiving chemotherapy or radiation treatment.
The CDC estimates that each year 48 million people get sick from a foodborne illness, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die.
Foodborne illness (also referred to as food illness, food poisoning, and foodborne disease) is mostly caused by pathogens – bacteria, viruses, or parasites (also referred to as biological hazards).
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Bacteria “Danger Zone” (40°F – 140°F)
Leaving food out too long at room temperature can cause bacteria to grow to dangerous levels that can cause illness. Bacteria grow most rapidly in the range of temperatures between 40°F and 140°F, doubling in number in as little as 20 minutes. This range of temperatures is called the “Danger Zone”.
High Risk/Low Risk Foods for Bacterial Growth
High-risk foods are those that have ideal conditions for bacterial growth. This means they’re usually:
- Neutral in acidity
- High in starch or protein
Examples: Foods such as raw meat or seafood, cooked rice or pasta, eggs, and dairy are all considered high-risk because they provide the perfect environment for bacteria to grow. This is why it’s essential to practice proper food handling when dealing with these foods.
Low-risk foods are those that don’t have particularly good bacterial growth conditions. These foods are:
- High in acidity
- High in salt or sugar
- Canned or vacuum packed
Examples: Low-risk foods like dry goods, breakfast cereals, pickled foods, uncooked rice or pasta, and jams. Although these foods are not common sources of biological contamination, the appropriate care must still be taken when handling them.
Vulnerable groups should take extra precautions and avoid the following foods:
- Raw or rare meat and poultry;
- Raw or undercooked fish or shellfish;
- Raw or undercooked eggs or foods containing them ( cookie dough and homemade ice cream);
- Fresh sprouts;
- Unpasteurized ciders or juices;
- Unpasteurized milk and milk products;
- Uncooked hot dogs.
Symptoms of Foodborne Illness
- Common symptoms of foodborne illness are diarrhea and/or vomiting, typically lasting 1 to 7 days. Other symptoms might include abdominal cramps, nausea, fever, joint/back aches, and fatigue.
- What some people call the “stomach flu” may actually be a foodborne illness caused by a pathogen (i.e., virus, bacteria, or parasite) in contaminated food or drink.
- The incubation period (the time between exposure to the pathogen and onset of symptoms) can range from several hours to 1 week.
It is very important to understand why and how foods can make you sick when you are more vulnerable to foodborne illness.
Take extra care during the holidays to ensure that people more susceptible to a foodborne illness (e.g., pregnant women, young children, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems) do not get sick.
Avoid high-risk foods, such as raw or undercooked eggs, unpasteurized dairy products, raw fish or shellfish, and undercooked meat and poultry.