Foodborne illness? Know when and how to report it

Reporting a foodborne illness is important, no matter how severe the symptoms are, and it can possibly save the life of others.

A dish of pasta left out on a table at a gathering, with people in the background.
Photo: Pexels/Caleb Oquendo.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that one in six people experience foodborne illness annually. What is important about that statement is that it is an estimate; the majority of people with foodborne illness do not seek out an actual diagnosis and treatment, so the CDC estimates this data.

This estimate is based on science-based research. Data is important to assess the impact of disease and with more data from people getting tested for a foodborne illness, there is a better chance to help identify outbreaks, help prevent further transmission of disease and decrease the risk of outbreaks. MSU Extension recommends knowing the symptoms of foodborne illness, when to seek medical attention and how to report the illness to local health departments. 

What is a foodborne illness and how do I know if I have it?

Foodborne illness is caused by pathogens, like bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites that can be transmitted through food.  Common symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps and fever. Most people experience mild symptoms that last only one or two days. Severe symptoms can lead to hospitalization, long term health issues, and death. Children, older adults, pregnant women and individuals with a chronic health condition are at the highest risk for contracting a foodborne illness.

Any food can lead to a foodborne illness, but the foods that are often the source include:

  • Raw or undercooked meat/fish/poultry.
  • Unpasteurized milk.
  • Raw sprouts.
  • Produce.
  • Contaminated water.

If you have symptoms of a foodborne illness, it’s important to know when to seek medical attention. Dehydration can develop quickly when vomiting and diarrhea occur, so hydration is a primary treatment. While most people that experience dehydration can often overcome this on their own, it can become life threatening for others that are in a high-risk group. The bottom line is, don’t delay reporting a suspected foodborne illness as you may save the life of others at risk. Additionally, as outlined by the Mayo Clinic, it is important to seek medical attention if:

  • Vomiting persists more than two days.
  • Diarrhea persists more than several days.
  • Diarrhea turns bloody.
  • Fever is 102 degrees Fahrenheit (39 degrees Celsius) or higher.
  • Lightheadedness or fainting occurs with standing.
  • Confusion develops.
  • Worrisome abdominal pain develops.

How to report a suspected foodborne illness

If you suspect you have a foodborne illness, you can contact your local health department. If possible, collect and preserve the suspect food. The health department will collect your information and if a second person also reports this, they will initiate an investigation. If you seek treatment from a healthcare provider instead, and it is confirmed that you have a foodborne illness, they will report this to the local health department. Depending on the situation, an investigation may involve additional organizations, such as the State Department of Health, the CDC and possibly other agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), or the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The impact of foodborne illness

Foodborne illness reporting has led to significant legal changes that have affected how food is handled from the time it is grown to when it is ready to eat. For example, in 1993, a large foodborne illness outbreak involved the Jack-in-the-Box restaurant chain. Undercooked ground beef used for hamburgers was contaminated with E. coli 0157:H7. The foodborne illnesses that were reported allowed state and local agencies to prevent additional victims by raising the minimum cooking temperature of ground beef and led to the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). While these proactive measures happened at the national level, reporting at the local level can have a considerable effect on food handling controls and policies for local food handling establishments. So, the next time you are having symptoms of what you think is a foodborne illness, consider the lives you may save if you report it. 

For more information on food safety, or to search for food safety and preservation classes near you, visit MSU Extension's Safe Food & Water website.

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