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Foodborne Outbreaks

As a foodservice operator, you are responsible for your operation, your staff, and your customers. The best way to meet your obligations is to keep the food you serve safe. To start, you must know what foodborne illnesses are, and whom they most affect. The more you learn about them, the more you will understand the need for strong food safety practices. The costs of a foodborne-illness outbreak can be devastating.

A foodborne illness is a disease transmitted to people by food. An illness is considered a foodborne-illness outbreak when two or more people from different households have the same symptoms after eating the same food. However, this requires an investigation by a regulatory authority as well as confirmation by a laboratory. Millions of people contract a foodborne illness each year. Most cases go unreported and do not occur at restaurant or foodservice operations. Those that are reported and investigated help the industry learn about the causes of foodborne illnesses and what can be done to prevent them.

Basic information is necessary to begin a suspected foodborne illness outbreak investigation. The following questions will be important when investigating the culprit of your illness and to determine whether or not a foodborne illness outbreak has occurred. Keep this information in mind when reporting a suspected case of foodborne illness:

  • The name and location of the foodservice establishment
  • Number of ill individuals and the total number present
  • The time and day the illness begin (time of first symptom(s)) and how long the illness lasted
  • The symptoms experienced
  • The meal items and beverages eaten by ill individuals (meal items for well individuals are also pertinent)
  • Are individuals still becoming ill?
  • Contact information for all other individuals present for interview
When a foodborne illness outbreak is first suspected, the microorganism that caused people to become ill is likely unknown. The identification of that microorganism by laboratory testing is a critical factor that will help focus the investigation. I f you are ill with symptoms that you believe may be associated with an outbreak, it is recommended you see a doctor so that a stool specimen can be collected for laboratory testing; alternatively, the Health Department may request to collect specimens from you.

"Last Meal Bias"

People often associate their illness with the last food or meal that they consumed. While there are some microorganisms (particularly toxins) that cause illness to develop quickly after consuming contaminated food items (as short as 30 minutes), there are many foodborne illnesses that can take up to 72 hours (3 days) or longer to develop. When thinking about what might have caused you to become ill, it is helpful to review the food items that you have eaten over the last several days and be prepared to provide a 3-day meal history.