Food poisoning is caused by consuming food products contaminated with germs.
Some bacteria produce toxins that result in food poisoning when ingested. However, it is often the presence of particular bacteria or viruses that cause our own immune systems to produce harmful toxins. These are meant to destroy the bacteria but sometimes are harmful to us.
Infectious organisms or their toxins can contaminate food at any point of processing or production. Contamination can also occur at home if food is incorrectly handled or cooked. Food poisoning symptoms, which can start within hours of eating contaminated food, often include nausea, vomiting or diarrhoea. Most often, food poisoning is mild and resolves without treatment. However, some food poisoning usually leads to a short acute illness (such as vomiting or diarrhoea) that resolves with appropriate medical treatment. However, in the most serious cases, food poisoning results in death.
Foodborne illnesses are usually infectious or toxic in nature and caused by bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemical substances entering the body through contaminated food or water.
Foodborne pathogens can cause severe diarrhoea or debilitating infections including meningitis.
Chemical contamination can lead to acute poisoning or long-term diseases, such as cancer. Foodborne diseases may lead to long-lasting disability and death. Examples of unsafe food include uncooked foods of animal origin, fruits and vegetables contaminated with faeces, and raw shellfish containing marine biotoxins.
Main bacteria causing food poisoning
Antimicrobials, such as antibiotics, are essential to treat infections caused by bacteria. However, their overuse and misuse in veterinary and human medicine has been linked to the emergence and spread of resistant bacteria, rendering the treatment of infectious diseases ineffective in animals and humans. Resistant bacteria enter the food chain through the animals (e.g. Salmonella through chickens). Antimicrobial resistance is one of the main threats to modern medicine.
Norovirus infections are characterized by nausea, explosive vomiting, watery diarrhoea and abdominal pain. Hepatitis A virus can cause long-lasting liver disease and spreads typically through raw or undercooked seafood or contaminated raw produce. Infected food handlers are often the source of food contamination.
Some parasites, such as fish-borne trematodes, are only transmitted through food. Others, for example tapeworms like Echinococcus spp, or Taenia solium, may infect people through food or direct contact with animals. Other parasites, such as Ascaris, Cryptosporidium, Entamoeba histolytica or Giardia, enter the food chain via water or soil and can contaminate fresh produce.
Prions, infectious agents composed of protein, are unique in that they are associated with specific forms of neurodegenerative disease. Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, or “mad cow disease”) is a prion disease in cattle, associated with the variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD) in humans. Consuming bovine products containing specified risk material, e.g. brain tissue, is the most likely route of transmission of the prion agent to humans.
Of most concern for health is naturally occurring toxins and environmental pollutants.