Michael P. Hirsh, M.D.
Foodborne illness outbreaks occur when multiple people are infected with an illness from the same food source. These infections can result from raw or undercooked meats, contaminated food products, and poor food service practices. Common pathogens that can cause foodborne illness outbreaks are Escheria coli (E. Coli), Salmonella, Listeria, Norovirus, though many other disease causing agents can be spread through contaminated food and drink.
E. coli are a large and diverse group of bacteria, and some types of E. Coli can cause illness. Most outbreaks of harmful E. coli are referring to E. coli O157, which produce toxins that can cause severe stomach pain, diarrhea, and vomiting. This type of bacteria lives in the gut of cattle, goats, sheep, and deer, and can be transmitted to humans through contact with contaminated human or animal feces, traces of which can be found in food products such as raw meat, contaminated vegetables, and raw milk due to poor sanitation techniques and processes.
Salmonella is another common bacteria causing foodborne illness. The most common source of salmonella is raw or undercooked eggs, as well as contaminated poultry. The symptoms of infection include fever, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea, though most people recover on their own within one week without treatment with antibiotics.
Norovirus, sometimes called the "cruise ship virus", can be spread very easily through food, drink, and contact with unclean surfaces. It can cause symptoms such as diarrhea, vomiting, stomach pain, and fever. There is no treatment for norovirus and most cases resolve on their own within 48 hours and do not require hospitalization.
Though improvements in food service safety are a factor in preventing the spread of disease through food, it is also important to take precautions at home to avoid pathogens that may be in food. To prevent the spread of illness, be sure to wash hands, cutting boards, knives, and countertops with warm soapy water before and after preparing food. Wash cloth towels in the kitchen often and rinse fruits, vegetables, and lettuce before consuming them. Be sure to avoid cross contamination of raw meats with other dishes by using separate cutting boards and knives and never placing food on a plate that contained raw meat. Bacteria die upon heating, so use a meat thermometer to ensure meat is cooked to the proper temperature (165° for ground beef and poultry) and cook eggs until the yolk and white are firm. Chill leftovers in the refrigerator immediately, as bacteria spreads more rapidly at room temperature.
Reporting Foodborne Illness
If you think you or a family member has contracted a foodborne illness, contact your doctor. Your doctor will be able to recommend testing and prescribe antibiotics if necessary. If your doctor suspects foodborne illness, you may contact the City of Worcester Inspectional Services Department to file a complaint.