Foodborne illness and why you should pay attention

Food safety is important, but not many people realize the risks involved and what safe food handling really means.

Picture of a salad

Seventeen percent. This is the rate of incidence of foodborne illness in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That equates to one in six individuals per year who contract an illness from food they ate.  Oftentimes, we think more globally when we think of a foodborne illness — for example, multistate outbreaks that result in the recall of contaminated food. The reality is that 95 percent of foodborne illness actually occurs as a result of what the CDC calls “sporadic” or “non-outbreak” cases. 

Sources of foodborne illness

Despite most illnesses not coming from outbreaks, investigating them has revealed data on the cause of a foodborne illness. The CDC used information from outbreaks in a ten-year study to ultimately determine which foods make us sick, and the study found that:

  • Produce accounted for almost half (46 percent) of all foodborne illnesses, with many of the illnesses in produce (also 46 percent) caused by the pathogen norovirus. Leafy vegetables accounted for most of the illnesses among the vegetables in the study.
  • Meat and poultry only accounted for 22 percent of the illnesses; however, illness from meat and poultry led to more deaths than any other type of food, with 29 percent of deaths related to foodborne illness caused from this source. 


Norovirus, listeria, salmonella, E.coli and campylobacter are some of the leading pathogens that cause foodborne illness.  Regardless of the type of pathogen, the following practices can help prevent getting sick from food:

  • Wash your hands!
    • A USDA study found that only 3 percent of people cooking in a test kitchen washed their hands every time they should have.
    • A 2014 observational study found that 65 percent of people did not wash their hands before meal preparation, and 40 percent did not wash their hands after handling raw chicken.
    • Our hands are a main vehicle of contaminating other surfaces and should be washed any time they could become contaminated.
  • Wash your produce prior to eating.
  • Don’t wash your meat!
  • Clean and sanitize your work surfaces, equipment and utensils.
  • Control the time that foods that require refrigeration are left out at room temperature (for example, don’t thaw your meat on the counter).
  • Cook food to the proper internal temperature.
  • Always separate foods that can contaminate. For example, keep raw meat and poultry separate from ready to eat foods.

Why bother?

Many people disregard the above steps, simply because they continue poor food-handling practices and “don’t get sick.”  While you may not get sick yourself, or it may just be mild symptoms, take a minute to think about your child, neighbor, co-worker or grandparent that could get sick.  Foodborne illness can lead to severe symptoms, even death.  The CDC also recognizes some serious long-term health effects that one can develop as well.  For example, chronic arthritis can be caused from campylobacter, Shigella or Salmonella infections?  E. coli can cause kidney failure, and campylobacter or Listeria can lead to nervous system damage.

Talk with anyone who’s had a foodborne illness, and chances are they’ll say it was one of the worst times of their life. To educate others and prevent foodborne illness, MSU Extension has many programs that teach safe food handling practices, including:

  • ServSafe: This training meets mandatory food safety certification requirements for food service operations.
  • Safe Food = Healthy Kids: This food safety course is for childcare providers. Children are a high-risk population and the people charged with taking care of them are not currently required to receive food safety training.
  • Cooking for Crowds: This food safety course is geared towards non-profits that rely on volunteers to serve food to the public, such as church groups.
  • Food Preservation: This program teaches people how to preserve food safely.
  • Food Safety in Food Pantries: This program helps establish safe food handling practices in food pantries.

Fight Bac also has a great video that summarizes safe practices; it is worth viewing and sharing with others.


Did you find this article useful?