The serious and long-term effects of foodborne illness

Learn more about some lesser-known side effects of foodborne illnesses.

A stethoscope on a paper.
Photo: Pixabay/Darko Stojanovic.

A lot of information on the risks of foodborne illness often does not address the serious, long-term health complications that can result from eating food contaminated with pathogenic bacteria, viruses, fungi or parasites. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has identified pathogens that carry a greater risk for hospitalization or death:

  • Campylobacter
  • E. coli (STEC) O157
  • Listeria monocytogenes
  • Non-typhoidal Salmonella
  • Norovirus
  • Toxoplasma gondii

Foodborne illnesses from these pathogens can be mild, but there is still a risk for long-term complications, which could change your life. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Bad Bug Book provides the following secondary health conditions resulting from foodborne illnesses:

  • Campylobacter has been linked to illnesses such as meningitis, hepatitis, cholecystitis, pancreatitis, Guillain-Barré Syndrome, hemolytic uremic syndrome and colitis.
  • coli (STEC) O157 has been linked to hemolytic uremic syndrome and renal and neurological damage.
  • Listeria presents as more severe for those with compromised immune systems and can lead to sepsis and meningitis. While pregnant women may not show symptoms or have mild symptoms, the infection puts the unborn baby at a higher risk for bacteremia, meningitis or fetal death.
  • Salmonella ssp., particularly the non-typhoidal Salmonella, can result in sepsis or reactive arthritis.
  • Norovirus infections linked to foodborne illnesses can result in severe dehydration, requiring medical care, particularly for individuals with a weak or compromised immune system.
  • Toxoplasma gondii is a parasite that for infected pregnant women, causes the unborn baby to be at a higher risk for head deformities, brain or eye damage, hydrocephalus, microcephaly, intracranial calcification, chorioretinitis or fetal death.

The risk of becoming infected by one of these foodborne illness-causing pathogens can be lowered by following the CDC’s Four Steps to Food Safety: clean, separate, cook and chill.

Clean hands are the first line of defense against a foodborne illness. Take 20 seconds to wash your hands with soap and water before and after preparing food. ​Clean cutting boards, counters and kitchen tools using hot water and a dish detergent or soap.

Separate raw meats, poultry and eggs from ready-to-eat food. Cross contamination is one of the common sources of foodborne illness. Having different cutting boards that are color-coded — one for raw meat, seafood, and poultry and another cutting board for fruits and vegetables — can help you remember which one to use.​

Cook food to the right internal temperature for food safety. If poultry, such as chicken or turkey, doesn’t reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit, it may not kill pathogens to a safe level. The only way to know if the correct internal temperature is reached is by using a food thermometer.

​Chill foods to 40 degrees Fahrenheit or lower, and never thaw foods on the counter. This will expose the outside of the food to temperatures that allow bacteria to grow. Thaw foods in the refrigerator or under cool running water. Food can be thawed in the microwave if it will be cooked immediately. Place leftovers in the refrigerator within two hours and use them within three to four days.  ​

MSU Extension provides many resources, including fact sheets, webinars, trainings, and answers from food safety experts for the best practices to prevent foodborne illness. For more information on keeping food safe, visit MSU Extension's Safe Food & Water website.

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