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FAQs: Foodborne Illnesses
What is a foodborne illness?

Foodborne illnesses are those acquired by consumption of contaminated food or drink, and include those caused by chemical contaminants such as heavy metals and organic compounds. These illnesses are frequently and inaccurately referred to as food poisoning. To meet the definition of a foodborne illness, two or more persons must have consumed the same food and have similar symptoms of illness or one person must be physician/laboratory diagnosed with a specific illness. The Mecklenburg County Health Department will take information regarding foodborne complaints, but these may not be investigated to the extent of a true foodborne illness. The most frequent causes of foodborne illnesses are: 1) bacterial toxins grown in the food prior to consumption such as Clostriduium botulinum, Staphylococcus aureus, and Bacillus cereus; scrombroid fish poisoning associated with elevated histamine levels; 2) bacterial, viral, or parasitic infections (brucellosis, Campylobacter enteritis, diarrhea caused by Escherichia coli, hepatitis A, listeriosis, salmonellosis, shigellosis, toxoplasmosis, viral gastroenteritis, taeniasis, trichinosis, and vibrios; and 3) toxins produced by harmful algal species (cigautera fish poisoning, paralytic shellfish poisoning) or present in specific fish species (puffer fish poisoning).

What are the symptoms of a foodborne illness?

Symptoms may include nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramping, diarrhea, fever, headache, jaundice, tingling or numbness, muscle aches and pains, and many others. Not all foodborne illnesses have the same symptoms and the severity of symptoms varies from one person to the next.

How long does it take for a foodborne illness to occur?

Foodborne illness caused by chemical contaminants or that caused by allergic reactions to elevated histamine levels in fish can occur within minutes, while other foodborne diseases may occur anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks after consumption of the contaminated food/drink. Most persons will assume that the last meal eaten is the cause of their illness; this is very often inaccurate.

Do I need to see a doctor about my foodborne illness?

This is an individual choice based on how the individual is feeling; however, no foodborne illness can be proven unless the causative agent can be isolated from both the person and the food that they consumed. Therefore, it is very important that a doctor is seen so that specimens of blood, vomitus, or stool can be taken and that you contact the Health Department as soon as an illness is suspected so that food, drink, or food contact surfaces can be sampled in a timely manner.

What information do I need to have when I call the Health Department?

The first tool that the Health Department needs to investigate a complaint of foodborne illness is a thorough case history. You need to be prepared to provide information about your symptoms, the time, date and location of consumption of the suspected meal, when symptoms occurred, as well as a three-day food history of items consumed prior to becoming ill. In cases where a large group of persons consumed the same foods (such as a reunion, party, etc.), food histories must be taken from those persons not showing symptoms as well as from those who are ill. You must leave information about how you can be contacted during the hours of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. so that additional information may be gathered as necessary.

From the information gathered from these case histories, the Health Department will make a statistical analysis about the type of illness and pinpoint the foods most likely to have caused the illness.

What do I do with any food I have left of the suspect meal?

The Health Department can only test foods that are still in the 'chain of custody' of the restaurant or facility where the meal was prepared, so meals taken away from the facility cannot be analyzed at the Health Department laboratory. Individuals can take the leftover food to a private lab for analysis if they desire, but the results will not be included in a Health Department investigation. Is the information about my illness confidential?

Yes. Medical information about the individuals who are ill is confidential and will only be shared with the permission of that person. However, information about the investigation that takes place at the facility where the food was purchased is public information.

What happens when you go to the facility to investigate where I purchased the food?
A true foodborne illness investigation is treated as a high priority by the Health Department. Provided that the information about the illness is available to the department in a timely fashion, a full investigation will take place.

An investigation of a foodborne illness will involve the tracking of the suspected food from the supplier through storage, preparation, and service to the consumer. This investigation may include:

  • Checking invoices of food stock and scrutinizing receiving practices of the facility
  • Checking food storage and preparation practices
  • Checking for proper hot and cold food holding/cooking temperatures
  • Taking samples of suspected food/drink for laboratory analysis
  • Swabbing food contact surfaces to isolate bacterial contamination
  • Observing foodservice employee hygienic practices
  • Interviewing foodservice employees about their health
  • Checking for proper surface sanitizing

What causes a foodborne illness?

The top six causes of foodborne illness in commercial foodservice facilities can be found on our web site. Check them out and make sure you avoid them!

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