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What Is a Foodborne Illness? - Definition and Common Types

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  • 0:05 Hidden Danger at the Barbeque
  • 1:15 Foodborne Illnesses
  • 4:01 Food Poisoning
  • 5:33 Food Infection
  • 7:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Angela Hartsock

Angela has taught college Microbiology and has a doctoral degree in Microbiology.

In this lesson we will discuss illness caused by consuming contaminated foods. This will include defining the little known difference between food poisoning and food infection.

Hidden Danger at the Barbeque

It happens to everyone at one time or another. That Fourth of July barbeque is stretching into its fifth hour with a couple more to go before the fireworks. Your sixth volleyball game has just ended, so you decide to head back over to the buffet table and see what's left. The burgers are gone. So are all four different varieties of tortilla chips. And finally, at the end of the table, you see it: Aunt Jean's delicious, world-famous potato salad. At least, it was delicious five hours ago. You know you shouldn't eat it, but volleyball has left you ravenous. Surely a few scoops of this warm, mayonnaise-based side dish can't hurt you. It would certainly hit the spot. With only token hesitation, you grab a plastic spoon and dive in!

If you haven't already guessed, you never make it to the fireworks. Instead, you spend the next six hours in the bathroom vomiting. Inside that innocently tantalizing potato salad, a potentially deadly pathogen was growing, reproducing, dying and releasing toxic compounds. Add your name to the ever growing number of those stricken with a foodborne illness.

Foodborne Illnesses

A foodborne illness is any illness that results from consuming food contaminated with pathogenic microorganisms, or toxic compounds released by microorganisms. The disease-causing microorganisms are most often bacteria, but can also include fungi, viruses and protozoa. Your food usually travels a long distance from its origin before it gets to your plate. It can be handled by many different people and exposed to many different conditions. This results in many potential points where food can become contaminated.

Some microbes responsible for foodborne illnesses are members of the normal microflora of the food organism. So, for example, the bacteria that are naturally found in the cow intestinal tract can end up contaminating the slabs of beef during butchering. This kind of contamination can occur during slaughter or during any point in the food's processing.

Vegetables and fruits are not immune to contamination with foodborne pathogens, despite the fact that they are picked, not slaughtered. Irrigation water or fertilizers sprayed on crops can be contaminated with animal or human waste containing foodborne pathogens.

Contamination that occurs early in the food production process has the potential to make many people sick over a wide geographic area after foods are distributed. A vehicle is a nonliving source of pathogens that infects large numbers of individuals. In 2012, five states in the northeastern United States had an outbreak of E. coli that caused illness in 33 people. In this case, the outbreak was traced to a contaminated batch of prepackaged leafy greens. The leafy greens were the vehicle that delivered the E. coli to the public, hitting several states due to the widely distributed food.

More often, foodborne illnesses are a result of a more local contamination. The person preparing or serving the food is the source of the microbes, usually by the fecal-oral route. Poor personal hygiene, insufficient cleaning of preparation surfaces and reusing utensils before and after cooking are common ways that food becomes contaminated with pathogenic bacteria.

Insufficient cooking time or temperature can allow any pathogens already present to survive, and failure to promptly refrigerate leftovers can allow these organisms to grow and reproduce. This mode of contamination usually results in foodborne illness that impacts only the limited few that consume the food around the same time and from the same infection source.

There are two general types of foodborne illness: food poisoning and food infection. Let's take a minute and look at each individually.

Food Poisoning

Food poisoning, also called food intoxication, is any illness caused by ingesting food containing preformed microbial toxins. The microbes don't need to be alive or actively growing at the time of consumption. They form the toxins and release them directly into the food. The toxins generally cause symptoms immediately, only taking around one to six hours to develop. The time to develop symptoms can vary depending on the kind of toxin and its concentration in the food.

Let's use the example of Clostridium botulinum, the causative agent behind botulism food poisoning. C. botulinum will only grow in protein-rich environments with no oxygen. When C. botulinum is actively growing, it releases a toxin into its environment.

If that jar of green beans that your grandmother canned for you last fall was contaminated with C. botulinum, it is probably now full of both green beans and botulism toxin. Opening the jar introduces oxygen, which stops C. botulinum from growing, but does not impact the toxins already in the jar. If you eat the beans without cooking them, you are eating botulism toxin, which can cause a potentially fatal paralysis. You also ate the Clostridium bacteria, but they are unable to continue growing, making them harmless to you. The paralysis is a result of the toxin alone, not the C. botulinum cells. It is important to note, cooking the food before eating it will inactive the toxins, making those green beans safe to eat.

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