What Is Food Contamination?

Food contamination is a general term for what causes food borne illnesses. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in six Americans gets sick with a food contamination related illness each year, and more than 250 food borne illnesses have been identified. A variety of mechanisms can lead to food contamination, and it is important to identify them in order to prevent sicknesses caused by contaminated food.


Since there are so many forms of food contamination and related illnesses, a single description of symptoms or causes does not exist. Microbes, pathogens, poisonous chemicals or other dangerous materials like metals, natural toxins, and pesticides can cause diseases to be present in foods. The top five pathogens causing foodborne illnesses in the United States in 2011 resulted in tens of thousands of hospitalizations. Nontyphoidal salmonella caused over a million illnesses and 378 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The most common causes of food contamination in the U.S. are Salmonella, Norovirus, Campylobacter, Toxoplasma, E. coli O157, Listeria, and Clostridium perfringens.


One of the causes of food contamination is inadequate hand washing. When people handle food before they wash their hands, the pathogens on their hands can enter the food. Cross contamination can also cause disease. For example, when someone uses a knife used to cut raw meat to also cut raw vegetables or when someone puts food on a dirty countertop, cross contamination can occur. Inadequate food temperature can also cause food to become contaminated. If animal waste is introduced to food during meat or poultry slaughtering or perhaps through contaminated water, it can also cause illnesses in the person who eats the food.


If a person has a foodborne illness, the first symptoms tend to be abdominal cramps, vomiting, nausea and diarrhea. While about 48 million people get sick each year with food contamination related diseases, about 3,000 die from them, according to a CDC estimate. Some long-term effects of food poisoning can include kidney failure, death, brain and nerve damage and chronic arthritis. Older adults, pregnant women and those with chronic illnesses are particularly susceptible to food poisoning.


There are a variety of ways to reduce your risk of food contamination. Raw foods and unpasteurized milk are sources of foodborne illness, so cook your meet thoroughly and purchase pasteurized milk. Filter-feeding shellfish are likely to pick up pathogens in sea water. Foods that combine products of different animals are dangerous, like ground beef or milk, because one contaminated animal can affect an entire batch. Wash fruits and vegetables to reduce the risk of contamination. Remove the outer leaves of a head of lettuce. Cook meat, eggs and poultry completely. Don’t cross contaminate foods. Wash your hands and utensils, and clean cutting boards and countertops thoroughly. Put leftovers in the refrigerator right away.

Food poisoning in most cases resolves itself in two to three days, but it can require hospitalization. If you suspect that you have been exposed to a food contaminant, consult with your health care practitioner. He or she can help identify the source of the contaminant and identify a source of treatment. Prevention is the best way to avoid becoming ill from a foodborne pathogen. So, be diligent about hand washing, preparing foods and cooking them to avoid food contamination.

For more information, check out “10 Worst Food Contamination Incidents Ever“.