Food poisoning is an illness caused by eating or drinking food that has been contaminated by micro-organisms that cause infectious intestinal disease.
The most common symptoms of infectious intestinal disease are vomiting and/or diarrhoea, nausea, stomach ache, fever and headache.
Symptoms usually begin one to three days after eating the contaminated food or water but can take longer. Many micro-organisms can cause infectious intestinal disease and due to this the incubation periods, symptoms and modes of transmission vary.
Note: food poisoning may not necessarily result from the last meal consumed and can also be caused by certain viruses that can be picked up from people or contaminated surfaces.
Most people will recover without the need for treatment, but sufferers should drink plenty of fluids, eat easily digested food such as toast and rest. Symptoms usually last a few days, but if they persist or become severe, a doctor should be consulted.
Preventing spread of infection
Food poisoning can spread very easily, especially within families, nurseries and schools. Maintaining good personal hygiene is crucial in preventing the spread of infection. If you or a close contact are ill, it is recommended you;
- wash your hands thoroughly after using the toilet and before handling food
- wash your hands after contact with a sick person and after clearing up any soiling accidents
- clean up any such accidents straight away, use soapy water and a disinfectant
- wash door and toilet handles with a detergent and disinfectant
Anyone who has eaten contaminated or poisoned food can suffer from food poisoning, however the very young, elderly, pregnant women and people that are unwell, are particularly vulnerable.
Common causes of food poisoning
There are five main causes of food poisoning
- Bacteria and their toxins
- Chemicals and metals
- Poisonous plants
- Allergic reactions
Common types of food poisoning bacteria
There are several types of food poisoning bacteria that can cause illness in humans, the most common ones are:
Campylobacter (food borne infection)
- Clostridium Perfringens
- Staphylococcus Aureus
Some moulds can cause allergic reactions and respiratory problems and in optimum conditions produce ‘mycotoxins’ naturally occurring chemicals that can cause adverse health effects in humans.
Moulds can grow at temperatures as low as 2 in a fridge. To find out more information about moulds and whether it is safe to eat food when you see mould on it, see the article ‘Moulds On Food: Are They Dangerous?’ on USDA’s Food Safety Focus website.
Foods likely to cause to cause food poisoning if they are not handled, stored or cooked properly include:
- Raw meat and poultry
- ‘Ready to eat’ foods such as cooked sliced meats, pate, soft cheeses and pre-packed sandwiches
- Dairy products such as eggs and milk.
Practices that can cause food poisoning include:
- Foods prepared too far in advance and stored at room temperature or out of refrigeration too long
- Cooking food too slowly
- Not re-heating food to a high enough temperature to destroy food poisoning bacteria
- Under cooking food
- Not thawing frozen poultry for sufficient time
- Cross contamination from raw foods to ready to eat foods
- Storing hot food below 63°C
- Infected food handlers preparing food
Food handler fitness to work
Anyone that works as a food handler should contact their local EH department for advice.
Note: staff in food businesses, health care facilities, nurseries and premises catering for special needs may be excluded from work to prevent the spread of infection.
Further information is available on the FSA website.
Confirming a food poisoning case
If you suspect that you are suffering from food poisoning, consult your GP (or NHS direct) for medical advice. Take details of when, where, what you ate, the symptoms you had or have. You should also visit your doctor as a stool (faecal) sample will need to be sent for analysis.
Submitting a stool sample will assist in identifying the organism that caused the problem. If a food poisoning bacteria is confirmed, the results will be sent through to your doctor and the environmental health department, after which you may be contacted by an Environmental Health Officer for further investigation.
Environmental Health Officers (EHOs) have a responsibility to investigate incidences of food poisoning.
Following a food poisoning notification, the EHO will normally contact the person with the symptoms to ask questions about:
- what and where they have eaten prior to their illness
- whether there is any of the food that might have made them ill remaining
- details of their symptoms
- whether they’ve been abroad on holiday or travelled recently
- whether or not they have submitted a stool sample to their GP
- whether they know anyone else that ate with also experienced any symptoms
If a restaurant or shop is implicated, the EHO will carry an inspection of the premises and this may include taking food samples for examination. The EHO will be looking at what bacterial risks arise from the type of food handled in the business and how food is stored, prepared, cooked and served.
It is the Council’s policy that if the complainant is seeking compensation or a refund, then the department will not investigate the complaint. The complainant in this case will be advised to instruct solicitors to act on behalf of them or directly contact the vendor or manufacturer.