Picture ordering your favorite sandwich at your favorite deli downtown. Imagine eating it, feeling content, and then going about the remainder of your day—only to wake up in the middle of the night a few hours later with unbearable flu-like symptoms: fever, nausea, vomiting, aching, sweating, diarrhea, etc. Urgh, you have food poisoning.
Then you remember that the same thing happened to your coworker two cubicles down, only she didn’t report it. But she thought her illness was mild. Yours may be related, but it was much worse. Will you report yours? Maybe, just maybe, someone else got sick at the same place and had a more severe illness than yours.
It can be very serious, and sometimes even deadly. No one likes flu-like symptoms. No one likes eating food they like and then vomiting it up hours later. The truth of the matter is, however, that food poisoning affects one out of every six Americans every year. The CDC estimated that over 48 million people get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3000 people die every year from foodborne diseases in the United States.
Food poisoning is simply a broadened term that is used to describe an illness caused by foodborne pathogens. The contaminates range anywhere from bacteria to parasites to actual toxins, and can be spread by salmonella, E. coli, listeria, shigella botulism, campylobacter, and more. Salmonella poisonings is the most common form of food poisoning, causing up to 40 percent of foodborne illness cases and kill 33 people in 2012. Campylobacter—which is a type of bacteria spread through chicken, unpasteurized milk, and cheese, is quickly becoming more common, causing over 7000 cases of food poisoning in 2012. Vibrio infections that come from contaminated seafood (usually spread by warm sea water) are also dangerous.
The main reason that food poisoning occurs is because of poor food handling. Food poisoning bacteria can grow at any place along the food processing chain, from farm, to travel, to factory, to store, to table. Bacteria grows in circumstances where food is kept too warm for too long, or in unclean areas, or handled with unclean devices. Bacteria can form if foods are not properly packaged, if they’re packaged with the wrong foods, or if they’ve aged beyond usability.
Symptoms include many flu-like reactions, and they last anywhere from a few hours to an entire week. Generally, healthy adults with well-working immune systems are able to recover without any long-term side effects, many people end up hospitalized due to dehydration caused by vomiting, fever and excessive sweating, and not replenishing their liquids (3). Elderly people, adults with weak immune systems, and children run a very high risk of hospitalization, long term health determinates, or even death.
When two or more people get the same illness from consuming the same contaminated foods or drinks, it can be considered a foodborne outbreak. The amount of people who could be infected with the specific bacteria that you were infected with is innumerable. Reporting illnesses to your local health department helps them to identify and prevent additional outbreaks of foodborne diseases.
While obviously it can be difficult to identify the specific food that caused you such an illness since some food poisoning bacteria can take many hours or even days to develop symptoms, it’s still important to at least try to identify the cause. Even if hospitalization isn’t necessary, reporting the issue and giving officials a lead on their investigation is key to maintaining healthy foods. Try backtracking all the things you ate over the last few days, flagging anything different from the norm and identifying times where you could have consumed raw meats, undercooked meats, or other possibly contaminated foods. If you know someone who eats at the same downtown deli as you do and they contracted a similar illness as you, then that’s a good start.
As you have noticed, the vast majority of foodborne illnesses go unreported in the United States. This is why many states and local health agencies recommend reporting foodborne illness and related issues. Reporting foodborne illnesses does not only put these agencies on notice, but it also helps them detect potential outbreaks, advise companies to recall contaminated products, and develop methods of advanced notice or prevention of future outbreaks.
Not sure where to start? Not sure how to do the reporting?
The process is simple:
First, you can seek medical attention from your physician to obtain necessary testing for a diagnosis. This is helpful to find out what bacteria or virus made you sick and to obtain the medical care you need to get better. It is through a simple stool test that you can find out if your illness was caused by Salmonella, Campylobacter, Vibrio, or a myriad of other potential foodborne pathogens.
Second, you can encourage your physician to report your illness to your local health agency. Many pathogens, like E. coli, are required to be reported to the local and state health department. However, others may not be. It is always a good idea to encourage reporting.
Also, you can even report your illness yourself. It is usually a quick call to your local health department. In fact, some health departments, like Harris County, Texas’ health department, have launched smart phone applications to encourage and streamline the food poisoning reporting process.
No one likes food poisoning. It’s a terrible, miserable experience that most people wouldn’t wish upon anyone else. But based off statistics, it’s bound to happen, and there’s a 16 percent chance that it will happen to you at least once in a 365-day period. Make sure that if it does happen, you report the circumstance as soon as you possibly can so as to eliminate the possibility of it happening to someone else. A quick call, a visit to a website, or a simple click of your thumb on your smart phone could help stop an outbreak and even potentially save a life.
By: Abigail Ryan, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)