food poisoning

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food poisoning

food poisoning, acute illness following the eating of foods contaminated by bacteria, bacterial toxins, natural poisons, or harmful chemical substances. It was once customary to classify all such illnesses as “ptomaine poisoning,” but it was later discovered that ptomaines, the products of decayed protein, do not cause illness. The symptoms, in varying degree and combination, include abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, headache, and prostration; more serious cases can result in permanent disability or death.

Bacterial Food Poisoning

In general, the bacteria that cause food poisoning do not affect the appearance, aroma, or flavor of food. The most common bacterial causes of food poisoning are Salmonella (see salmonellosis), staphylococcus, Escherichia coli, Listeria monocytogenes, Shigella, and Campylobacter jejuni. The symptoms may be caused by toxins produced by the bacteria. The most serious type of food poisoning caused by bacterial toxins is botulism, which results from toxins made by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum.

Salmonella, most notoriously spread via raw eggs, develops from 6 to 72 hours after exposure. Symptoms include severe diarrhea, fever and chills, vomiting, and abdominal cramps and usually last from three to five days. Staphylococcal food poisoning is actually caused by the potent toxins that they produce. Typical sources are unrefrigerated ham, poultry, potato or egg salad, and custards. Carriers and food handlers with staphylococcal skin infections are mainly responsible for the spread of staphylococcus toxin poisoning. The onset of symptoms from such poisoning (similar to those of Salmonella infection) occurs abruptly one to six hours after ingestion of the polluted food. The illness lasts from 24 to 48 hours; fatalities are rare.

Outbreaks of food poisoning cases caused by infection with Shiga-toxin-producing strains of the usually harmless E. coli began to appear from the 1980s on, typically associated with consuming raw or undercooked ground meat or contaminated salad ingredients. Onset of symptoms comes one to eight days after eating the contaminated food. Symptoms include bloody diarrhea, nausea, and sporadic vomiting, with or without fever. It can progress to kidney failure and death, especially in children.

Listeriosis, caused by the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes, is spread in soft cheeses, undercooked meats, and prepared foods from delicatessen counters. Its onset is abrupt. Symptoms vary with the person's immune status and may include fever, muscle aches, fatigue, and nausea. The illness is especially serious for the very young or for pregnant women, who may miscarry or transmit blood infections or meningitis to the baby. In adults, the disease can progress to central nervous system complications, endocarditis, or pneumonia, and is an especially serious threat to the elderly.

Shigella is spread by contaminated food or from person to person (principally via a fecal-oral route). New strains of bacteria of the genus Shigella have been associated with food poisoning from ground meat. Symptoms include watery diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and bloody mucus in the stools.

Campylobacter enteritis is caused by either of two species of the Campylobacter bacterium. The bacterium is ubiquitous in uncooked poultry. Symptoms (diarrhea, fever, chills, headache) arise 2 to 11 days after exposure and last one to two weeks. Although usually mild, the infection can cause Guillain-Barré syndrome, in which the body's immune system attacks the peripheral nervous system, resulting in muscle weakness that can lead to paralysis and, rarely, death.

Treatment for most bacterial food poisoning includes rest, sedation, and replacement of fluid loss if necessary. Antibiotics usually are used only in severe cases. Preventive measures in the home include thorough cooking and prompt refrigeration of meats and eggs, washing and peeling fruits and vegetables (and avoiding uncooked produce entirely if a person has a compromised immune system), washing of cooking surfaces and utensils that may have been contaminated by uncooked foods, and careful handwashing after use of the toilet.

Since the 1970s the number of food poisoning cases in the United States has gradually increased, and beginning in the 1980s more virulent organisms and more serious cases of food poisoning with complications leading to miscarriage, kidney failure, or death were observed. Some experts have attributed this to overprescription of antibiotics and the routine use of antibiotics as growth enhancers and to treat disease in livestock, practices that encourage the development of drug-resistant bacterial variants. An increase in the consumption of uncooked fresh produce has also contributed to the increase in food-borne illnesses. The increase in the number and severity of food poisoning cases have led to concern about food inspection and preparation methods, and to the Food and Drug Administration's approval of irradiating some high-risk foods to eliminate bacterial contamination. More stringent meat inspection procedures were put in place by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture in 1996 in response to some of these concerns, and the FDA approved the irradiation of meat. The vast majority of food poisoning cases, however, involve fruits and vegetables, seafood, cheese, and products, such as juices or deli salads, made with them. In 2008 the FDA allowed spinach and iceberg lettuce to be irradiated to kill bacteria.

Food Poisoning by Natural Poisons and Metals

Nonbacterial food poisoning may occur after eating foods that contain a naturally occurring or acquired deleterious substance. Ingestion of poisonous mushrooms or toadstools (see mushroom poisoning) may be followed in a matter of several minutes to two hours by severe thirst, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, vomiting, sweating, dizziness, confusion, collapse, coma, and, occasionally, convulsions. Poisoning may occur also after the ingestion of immature or sprouting potatoes because of the presence of solanine, an alkaloid. Mussels and clams that have fed on poisonous plankton also are a cause of food poisoning, since the poisonous substance is not destroyed by cooking. Ergot poisoning, caused by ingestion of rye grain infected with that fungus, causes damage to the blood vessels and gangrene, as well as gastrointestinal and neurologic symptoms.

It is also possible to take into the body poisons such as arsenic, lead, or mercury via foods that have been accidentally contaminated or sprayed with preservatives and not properly cleansed before ingestion. Food stored in containers lined with cadmium has been known to cause poisoning. Typical symptoms of this sort of food poisoning (diarrhea, vomiting) may occur right away; the nervous system and respiratory systems may be affected with continued exposure.


See J. P. Monahan, Food Poisoning (1984); J. N. Hathcock, ed., Nutritional Toxicology (1989); D. O. Cliver, ed., Foodborne Diseases (1990).

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Food poisoning

An acute gastrointestinal or neurologic disorder caused by bacteria or their toxic products, by viruses, or by harmful chemicals in foods.

Bacteria may produce food poisoning by three means: (1) they infect the individual following consumption of the contaminated food; (2) they produce a toxin in food before it is consumed; or (3) they produce toxin in the gastrointestinal tract after the individual consumes the contaminated food.

Infectious bacteria associated with food poisoning include Brucella, Campylobacter jejuni, enteroinvasive Escherichia coli, enterohemorrhagic E. coli, Listeria monocytogenes, Salmonella, Shigella, Vibrio parahaemolyticus, V. vulnificus, and Yersinia enterocolitica. These organisms must be ingested for poisoning to occur, and in many instances only a few cells need be consumed to initiate a gastrointestinal infection. Salmonella and C. jejuni are the most prevalent causes of food-borne bacterial infections. See Yersinia

Staphylococcus aureus and Clostridium botulinum are bacteria responsible for food poisonings resulting from ingestion of preformed toxin. Staphylococcus aureus produces heat-stable toxins that remain active in foods after cooking. Clostridium botulinum produces one of the most potent toxins known. Botulinal toxin causes neuromuscular paralysis, often resulting in respiratory failure and death. See Botulism, Staphylococcus, Toxin

Food-poisoning bacteria that produce toxin in the gastrointestinal tract following their ingestion include Bacillus cereus, Clostridium perfringens, enterotoxigenic E. coli, and V. cholerae. Bacillus cereus and C. perfringens are spore-forming bacteria that often survive cooking and grow to large numbers in improperly refrigerated foods. Following ingestion, their cells release enterotoxins in the intestinal tract. Enterotoxigenic E. coli is a leading cause of travelers' diarrhea. See Escherichia

Viruses that cause food-borne disease generally emanate from the human intestine and contaminate food through mishandling by an infected individual, or by way of water or sewage contaminated with human feces. Hepatitis A virus and Norwalk-like virus are the preeminent viruses associated with food-borne illness. See Hepatitis

Chemical-induced food poisoning is generally characterized by a rapid onset of symptoms which include nausea and vomiting. Foods contaminated with high levels of heavy metals, insecticides, or pesticides have caused illness following ingestion. See Medical bacteriology

McGraw-Hill Concise Encyclopedia of Bioscience. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Food Poisoning


any acute and often widespread infectious disease that results from the ingestion of food containing certain pathogenic microorganisms or their toxins. Food poisoning can be caused by Clostridium botulinum; members of the genus Salmonella; staphylococci; or colon, paracolon, or dysentery bacilli.

Salmonella poisoning is the most common form. It results from the consumption of contaminated eggs, egg products, meat, and meat and fish products, including finely ground meat, gelatin, jellied dishes, fish stuffing, and low-grade boiled sausages, for example, liver and blood sausages. Less commonly, milk and dairy products become contaminated. Salmonella poisoning is manifested by acute gastroenterocolitis.

Food poisoning by the colon bacillus develops from eating salads, fish, various types of stuffings, or cutlets that have been infected after preparation because of gross negligence with respect to quality and storage regulations. Colon bacillus infections are mild, lasting from one to three days and producing symptoms of gastroenteritis.

Staphylococcal food poisoning is generally caused by enterotoxin-producing cocci. The main sources of the staphylococci are persons suffering from tonsillitis, rhinitis, furunculosis, or pyoderma; healthy human carriers; and dairy cattle affected with mastitis. Staphylococcal food poisoning can result from eating milk and sour-milk products, cream-filled pastry, or—less commonly—meat, fish, and canned food. Foods contaminated by staphylococci and contain enterotoxin do not differ in appearance, odor, or taste from uncontaminated foods. With prompt treatment, the course of staphylococcal food poisoning is similar to that of a brief attack of acute gastroenterocolitis that lasts from one to three days. The disease may be fatal in children.

Food poisoning can be prevented by strict observance of sanitary, hygienic, and veterinary regulations for the transport, preparation, storage, and sale of foodstuffs and prepared dishes. Preventive checkups for food-industry workers help detect bacteria carriers. Victims of food poisoning must be hospitalized and subsequently must return to a clinic for subsequent checkups.


Shur, I. V. Zabolevaniia sal’monelleznoi etiologii, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1970.
Budagian, F. E. Pishchevye toksikozy, toksikoinfektsii i ikh profilaktika, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1972.


Food Poisoning


a term used to describe gastrointestinal disorders caused by the consumption of foods that are toxic in nature or that contain bacterial poisons or toxic impurities.

Disorders caused by food poisoning are noncontagious, have a sudden onset, and are short-lived. Bacterial food poisoning is called intoxication or alimentary toxinfection. Nonbacterial food poisoning is often caused by poisonous mushrooms and by the seeds, roots, leaves, and berries of poisonous plants. The most severe and potentially fatal food poisoning results from the ingestion of poison hemlock roots. Children are often poisoned by belladonna berries, which resemble cherries, and by henbane seeds, which somewhat resemble poppy seeds. Some cultivated plants may also be poisonous. The bitter kernels of apricots, peaches, almonds, and cherries contain the glycoside amygdalin, which is split by the action of enzymes of the gastrointestinal tract, forming prussic acid, which causes food poisoning. Fresh or insufficiently cooked beans of the genus Phaseolus, which contain the toxin phaseolunatin, and potatoes that have sprouted or developed a green tinge, which contain a large quantity of the glycoalkaloid solanine, may also cause food poisoning.

Nonbacterial food poisoning caused by fish or meat is very rare. The consumption of some toxic fishes, for example, the Balkhash marinka (Schizothorax argentatus), may cause food poisoning. Ergotism and alimentary toxic aleukia are regarded as forms of food poisoning.

The organic and inorganic chemicals most commonly causing food poisoning are arsenic, copper, and sodium nitride. Arsenic poisoning may result from accidentally consuming arsenic-treated seeds and foods made from them or from inadvertently storing and transporting food and arsenic in the same container. Sodium nitride poisoning occurs when this compound is accidently used instead of salt or saltpeter in food preparation or in home canning. Food poisoning from copper compounds results from the use of copper pots that are not lined with tin or that are badly lined.

The symptoms caused by food poisoning are similar to those of gastroenterocolitis. Among the means for preventing food poisoning are education of the population and regular inspection of utensils used in institutions that prepare and serve food.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

food poisoning

[′füd ‚pȯiz·ən·iŋ]
Poisoning due to intake of food contaminated by bacteria or poisonous substances produced by bacteria.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

food poisoning

an acute illness typically characterized by gastrointestinal inflammation, vomiting, and diarrhoea, caused by food that is either naturally poisonous or contaminated by pathogenic bacteria (esp Salmonella)
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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