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Foodborne Illness and Human Health

Foodborne illness, commonly referred to as food poisoning, is a costly and potentially serious health risk that often gets taken for granted due to its ever presence in the news and the fact that most people, at some time or another, will suffer from a foodborne illness.  As a matter of fact, the CDC estimates that 48 million people fall ill due to foodborne illness each year with 128,000 requiring hospitalization and 3,000 resulting in death.

But why should I care about people who feel sick after eating? The financial burden.  According to the American Association for Justice, foodborne illnesses costs the country $77 billion per year.  For many patients, most forms of food poisoning present mild symptoms including abdominal pain, diarrhea, vomiting, and fever and treatment for a foodborne illness requires nothing more than rest.  However, certain individuals can suffer dire consequences:

  • infants,
  • elderly patients,
  • those with weakened immune systems, or
  • patients infected with a more serious foodborne illness can suffer dire consequences.

Common Types of Foodborne Illness


Norovirus is the leading cause of disease outbreaks from contaminated food in the United States.  It is highly contagious and only requires a small amount of contamination to make someone ill.  Norovirus is transmitted primarily through contaminated food.  Food can become contaminated with norovirus when a food worker who is infected and has stool or vomit on their hands handles the food, when the food is placed on a surface that has infectious stool or vomit on it, or when particles of infectious vomit spray through the air and land on the food.

Two examples of foods that can be contaminated with norovirus at their source are oysters harvested from contaminated water, or fruits and vegetables that are contaminated with norovirus in the field .  It is extremely important that those who work in food service settings are conscious of the ways in which norovirus is spread as infected food workers are regularly the source of norovirus outbreaks.   One of the simplest way to prevent the transmission of the norovirus is to wash your hands frequently when handling food.  The failure of many food workers to do that has been attributed to the norovirus outbreak that made more than 200 people sick on a Royal Caribbean cruise ship earlier this year. .


Salmonella is a bacterial disease that typically causes diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps but has the potential to spread from the intestines into the blood stream and travel throughout the body. Most people who become infected with salmonella have eaten foods that are contaminated with infectious feces.  The most common culprits of salmonella are raw chicken and raw eggs. Two common causes of salmonella are undercooked poultry and cross-contamination.  Cooking poultry to its recommended internal temperature and pasteurization kills salmonella.  Keeping raw poultry and eggs separate from other foods is crucial in the prevention of cross-contamination.  Do not use utensils on cooked food that were used to handle raw eggs or poultry and wash hands often with soap before and after handling food.  Cross-contamination between cooked and uncooked chicken in the food preparation area sparked a recall spanning over 11 states when several Foster Farms chicken products were linked to an antibiotic-resistant strain of salmonella that sickened hundreds of consumers.


Listeria is a bacteria found in water, soil, some animals and raw milk.  Listeria is unique in that it can grow even in the cold temperatures of a refrigerator. Listeria is found most often in ready-to-eat meats such as cold cuts or hot dogs, meat spreads, soft cheeses, and unpasteurized dairy products. It can also live in food processing plants. Recently, Blue Bell ice cream products caused of 10 cases of listeria across 4 states that resulted in 3 deathsand the  outbreak was traced back to a single machine at a production facility in east-central Texas.

E Coli

E Coli are a group of bacteria that can cause respiratory illness, urinary tract infections, pneumonia, and other illnesses. Poor sanitation and animal waste management on factory farms can contaminate food supplies with E. coli however the most common way to contract the infection is by eating contaminated foods such as ground beef, fresh produce, and unpasteurized milk.   Popular restaurant chain Chipotle Mexican Grill, which boasts its use of fresh products, recently closed 43 of its locations throughout Oregon and Washington temporarily in order to investigate an outbreak of E. coli.  The investigation will hopefully determine whether the bacteria was spurred at each individual restaurant or, more likely, that the E. coli originated at the source of a fresh food product.

I have been infected with a foodborne illness: What are my legal rights?

A person infected by a foodborne illness who believes that they can identify the responsible party can file a claim in an attempt to obtain compensation for costs incurred by the illness.  Most people pursuing a foodborne illness litigation hire a personal injury attorney first and foremost.   Your attorney will help you sort out the facts and file a complaint in court.  Most foodborne illness claims are settled out of court between the parties involved and of those that do escalate to lawsuits, very few are resolved in a court room by jury trial.  Big name brands are particularly prone to settling cases quickly, outside of court, to avoid media embarrassment.  Legal causes of action for a food product liability case include showing that the food worker or company was negligent, that the product did not conform to the warranty, or that the product was defective and the defendant is strictly liable.  A personal injury attorney can determine which cause of action may be proper on a case by case basis.

R.F. Wittmeyer

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