12 Surprisingly Common Causes of Food Poisoning

It’s estimated that there are nearly 48 million cases of food poisoning every year in the United States. Many of these people are infected without ever knowing they harbor a potentially life threatening condition. Food poisoning is so common because there are so many causes. 

What Causes Food Poisoning? 

Food poisoning can be caused by any infectious agent, chemical, or other contaminant that gets into the food supply and causes illnesses in people. Because the food supply is so vital to our daily lives, food poisoning cases are taken seriously in an effort to trace the source of the infection. Let’s take a look at the most common causes of this condition…  

12. Bacteria

Bacteria is one of the leading causes of food poisoning. In foods that haven’t been properly stored or have been exposed to room temperature for too long, bacteria can start to grow.  

Why Bacteria Cause Food Poisoning 

Bacteria are responsible for a variety of illnesses. Many of the harshest bacteria can easily start growing in our food if that food has been stored improperly. Food items can also develop bacterial growth when they start to spoil or rot. 

Bacteria can also be introduced into food by way of contamination, much like viruses… 

11. Viruses

Unlike bacteria, viruses that infect humans can not grow in food. A virus can only infect its specific hosts and even in foods that are still alive, such as oysters and certain plants, viruses can’t grow. However, viruses can live for a long time outside of host organisms. 

Why Viruses Cause Food Poisoning 

Viruses are introduced to the food supply by unsanitary conditions. These can range from workers who handle, package, and prepare food not having necessary sanitation equipment all the way to machinery or the packaging itself being contaminated. Viruses that enter our bodies from contaminated food products are common sources of food poisoning. 

Viruses and bacteria are common sources of food poisoning while parasites are much more uncommon. 

10. Parasites

Parasites are microscopic organisms that can infest our bodies and cause illness. The most common type of parasitic infection in virtually every culture in the world are intestinal parasites which can be foodborne. 

Why Parasites Cause Food Poisoning 

Parasite infections are some of the most rare cases of food poisoning, but they are still a threat. Parasites such as toxoplasma gondii and a species of parasitic worm known as Gnathostoma are some of the more common varieties. These enter our food supply through contamination such as by infected workers or animal feces. They can typically be sterilized through adequate cooking at high temperatures, but raw and undercooked meats and eggs are common sources of infection. 

Stopping food poisoning is all about keeping our food supply safe, but when those safety measures fail we can risk infection… 

9. Food Storage

Food storage is one of the most important tools we have in the battle against food poisoning. Properly stored foods are resistant to bacteria, mold, and other sources of spoilage. When our storage becomes compromised, food can become dangerous. 

Why Food Storage Causes Food Poisoning 

Properly storing food is the key to safety. Food should be kept cold until ready to consume, cooked to proper temperatures, and stored in air-tight containers. Canned and preserved foods need to be properly pasteurized in order to make sure all bacteria is killed off before they hit the shelves. Any failures in proper food storage are opportunities for food poisoning. 

Related to how we store food is how we handle it… 

8. Cross Contamination

Cross contamination is the process by which viruses, parasites, and bacteria are unintentionally migrated from one surface to another. It is very easy to accidentally cause food poisoning by accidentally creating conditions in which these infectious agents can easily spread… 

Why Cross Contamination Causes Food Poisoning 

Cross contamination can happen at any stage of food production. Everything from factories not sanitizing machinery to household cooks not washing their hands after handling raw meat can cause this kind of contamination. To avoid cross contamination, make sure your clean food preparation surfaces and make sure that you have a separate set of cooking equipment specifically for raw meat and eggs. 

Cross contamination is just one part of how we prepare our food… 

7. Food Preparation

When we prepare our foods, we are potentially exposing them to infectious diseases. Whether you are cooking in a restaurant, for retail, or at home, your food preparation needs to be safe to prevent food poisoning. 

Why Food Preparation Causes Food Poisoning 

Improper food preparation can quickly cause food poisoning. This encompasses a wide range of activities, but it is really about ensuring that our food isn’t contaminated while you are handling it. Make sure to wash your hands, prepare food on a clean surface, and avoid having raw meat or eggs contact other foods. 

Handling our food safely goes a long way to preventing food poisoning, but so does knowing how to properly cook foods… 

6. Improper Cooking

Some of the leading causes of food poisoning are foods that have not been cooked properly. Meat and eggs are two foods that are at a particularly high risk for food poisoning from not being properly cooked, but so are leafy greens, rice, and flour. 

Why Improper Cooking Causes Food Poisoning 

Many of our favorite foods naturally harbor infectious diseases. However, these organisms are killed off by our cooking methods. Meats in particular need to be cooked to between 145°F and 165°F depending on the type of meat. This ensures that all harmful agents have been destroyed by the cooking process. 

As with many things we have covered, we have a direct impact on our food poisoning risk when we don’t stick to regular cleaning… 

5. Unclean Kitchens

Your kitchen is one of the most common sites for food poisoning infections. Home cooks often cut corners or lack the proper training to safely handle, process, and prepare foods, but they also might not be aware of how much cleaning lowers their food poisoning risk. 

Why Unclean Kitchens Cause Food Poisoning 

Restaurants and commercial kitchens are held to very high food safety standards. They are required to be regularly cleaned to prevent pests, bacteria, and mold from taking hold in the food they prepare. As home cooks, we face these same risks even though our cooking operation is a lot smaller. Remember the old saying: “A clean kitchen is a safe kitchen.”

Our food can become contaminated even before it arrives in our kitchens… 

4. Food-growing Conditions

How our food is grown can have a dramatic impact on our food safety. While our vegetables and fruits are being grown, they can become contaminated by a wide variety of potentially dangerous substances. 

Why Growing Conditions Cause Food Poisoning 

Improper growing conditions can lead to food poisoning conditions ranging from contamination with animal manure and even chemical contamination. This is just one of the reasons why it is so important that we wash our fruits and vegetables before preparing them. This is especially true for plants we consume raw including apples and leafy greens. 

After food is grown, it needs to be transported safely to prevent another possible source of food poisoning… 

3. Food Transportation

Moving food from one place to another opens up the door for another potential food poisoning risk. Whether it’s on the truck heading to your local market or in your car heading home, transporting food can lead to contamination. 

Why Transportation Causes Food Poisoning 

When we transport food, we risk losing control over how that food is stored. Frozen goods including dairy products and meats need to be transported either in climate controlled vehicles or in coolers to ensure that they don’t pick up any infectious agents along the way. If you are heading to the store to buy foods that spoil quickly with heat, such as fish and other seafood, bring a cooler or ice pack to keep them cold on the way home. 

Some food contamination risks are a regular part of how we prepare otherwise safe foods… 

2. Unpasteurized Foods

Many of today’s food products go through some kind pasteurization process to keep them from going bad while in storage. Pasteurization is the process by which foods are heated to temperatures high enough to kill infectious agents. This technique was first scientifically demonstrated by Louis Pasteur in the late 1800s. 

However, there are some foods we choose not to pasteurize… 

Why Unpasteurized Foods Cause Food Poisoning 

Unpasteurized foods can include honey, milk, and fruit juice. Proponents of these foods say that they have better flavor and improved nutritional value, but they do come at a higher risk for food poisoning. People with compromised immune systems or other health concerns should consult their doctor before dipping a toe into the world of unpasteurized foods. 

While high heat can destroy many potential causes of food poisoning, room temperature and summer heat waves can cause it… 

1. The Summer

The summer is the most common time of year for food poisoning cases to occur. In order to get the most out of our cookouts, picnics, and barbeques, we need to know the dangers our food faces. 

Why the Summer Causes Food Poisoning 

The summer contributes to increased food poisoning cases for two major reasons. The first is that food is often left outside at room temperature for lengthy periods of time at events including parties and outdoor celebrations. The second is that the summer heat can quickly warm foods up to the danger zone. Between 40 °F and 140 °F the amount of bacteria can double every 20 minutes. 

Keep your food stored in coolers and try rotating smaller dishes in and out of cold storage to prevent food from spending too much time in the danger zone on those fun summer days.

Final Thoughts

Food poisoning is a large category of infections and illnesses caused by contaminated food. The best defense we have is to make sure that we do our best to keep food properly stored and make sure that we keep our cooking environments as clean as possible. 

If you suspect you’ve had a case of food poisoning, contact the USDA or FDA to report your case. Those government agencies can track cases and prevent contaminated foods from spreading across the country and even the world. 

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