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Food Poisoning and Infectious Disease Control


We investigate notifications of some infectious diseases along with colleagues at Public Health England. The aim of any investigation is to try to identify a cause and help limit any further spread of an illness.

When a notification, or complaint, about alleged food poisoning is made we will try to contact the person with the symptoms to find out more details. It is important to remember that food poisoning symptoms can be caused by other problems or infections, e.g. certain viruses can be picked up directly from other people or contaminated surfaces. The incubation period (time taken from eating the food to feeling unwell) varies with each type of organism and in some cases can be up to 10-15 days after consumption of the food It is important to realise therefore, that the last meal you ate may not be the cause of your symptoms.

Babies, young children and the elderly can very quickly become very ill when infected. Pregnant women, people who already have a pre-existing illness, and anyone whose immune system is weakened can also be seriously affected by food borne illness.

If you have food poisoning and think it has been caused by a restaurant or other food outlet, you can report it to us; we may investigate and, if necessary, ensure that the business involved improves its standards of hygiene to prevent it happening again. You can also complain via the Food Standards Agency.

We will invest when:

  • we receive formal  notification from Public Health England.
  • there is more than one party that have reported illness.

You can contact us by filling in the Request for service form, by email or by telephoning 02380 285230.

What to do if you have symptoms of food borne illness

Food borne illness can spread quickly, partly because everyone in the family could have eaten the same food and partly because the bacteria may be picked up by close family contact (e.g. nursing the sick). Viruses can also cause illness, similar to food poisoning and they also spread very quickly. If you suspect you are suffering food poisoning it is recommended that you visit your doctor as soon as possible, who might ask you to submit a sample for examination. Samples are useful in that they might be able to show which food-borne illness you are suffering from, or could rule out a food-poising organism. Viruses can also be detected. Consult your doctor immediately if the person affected is a baby, elderly or has an existing illness or condition or if symptoms are prolonged or severe (e.g. bloody diarrhoea).

If you or a member of your family are suffering from the symptoms of food poisoning, it is recommended that you follow the advice below to try and prevent the spread of the illness:

•    Wash your hands after contact with the sick person, and before handling food;
•    Do not use the same towel or face cloth as someone who is suffering with food borne illness.
•    Clear up soiling accidents straightaway, wash with hot soapy water and disinfect with a disinfectant or bleach.
•    Disinfect door and toilet handles, taps and the toilet seat after use and disinfect the toilet bowl frequently.
•    Drink plenty of fluids while you are ill to prevent dehydration.

What to do if you are a Food handler

If the person is a food handler or health care/nursery worker with highly susceptible patients, they cannot return to work until they have been symptom-free for 48 hours. They must also inform their employer of their symptoms.
Children aged under 5 years, or individuals unable to maintain good standards of personal hygiene, should not return until they have also been symptom-free for 48 hours.

Causes of Food Poisoning / Food Borne Illness

The main causes of food poisoning and food borne illness are:

  • preparing foods too far in advance
  • not cooking foods properly
  • not defrosting foods correctly
  • storing foods incorrectly (i.e. too warm) so that bacteria can grow quickly
  • cross contamination of foods after cooking
  • infection from people handling foods due to poor hygiene

It is also worth bearing in mind that people often become unwell due to contracting a virus such as norovirus, and the symptoms such as vomiting are often mistaken for being food poisoning. Illnesses of this type are often associated with particularly violent sickness, and the rapid onset of symptoms from beginning to feel unwell. Most people begin to feel better within 24 hours.

Types of Foodborne Illness

There are many types of food borne illness caused by different bacteria. The most common include:

Campylobacter - Symptoms include stomach cramps and severe diarrhoea but rarely vomiting. They can begin 2-10
days after eating contaminated food but usually within 2-5 days. Main sources are undercooked chicken and other meats, handling pets, cross-contamination to other foods, raw milk and contaminated water. This organism is the most common cause of acute diarrhoea in adults.

Salmonella - Symptoms include stomach pain, fever, diarrhoea and vomiting. It usually takes about 12-48 hours for the illness to develop. Symptoms can be much more severe in the young and elderly. Main sources are undercooked meat and poultry, untreated milk and raw or undercooked eggs. This organism is the 2nd most common form of food poisoning.

E.coli O157 - Symptoms include severe bloody diarrhoea, and the infection can lead to serious kidney damage in children. Main sources are undercooked beef burgers and minced beef, contaminated cooked meats and unpasteurised milk. This organism has also been linked to farms.

Staphylococcus aureus - Symptoms include stomach pains and vomiting, 1-6 hours after eating and it usually takes 12-24 hours for symptoms to subside. This bacteria is found on humans (particularly in the nose, throat, skin and ears) and is transferred to food through poor hygiene practices.

Listeria - Mild flu-like illness in healthy people, but which can cause septicaemia and meningitis in the young and elderly. Listeria can lead to stillbirth and miscarriage or meningitis in the new-born baby. Sources include unpasteurised soft cheeses (such as Brie and Camembert) and meat pates. Prevention of food poisoning from Listeria is more difficult than other organisms as it can multiply rapidly at refrigeration temperatures. It is recommended therefore that pregnant women do not eat the above products.

Norovirus - Norovirus is not a foodborne illness but is one of the most common stomach bugs in the UK. It also causes diarrhoea and vomiting so is sometimes mistaken for food poisoning. It's also called the "winter vomiting bug" because it's more common in winter, although you can catch it at any time of the year. Norovirus can be very unpleasant but it usually clears up by itself in a few days. You can normally look after yourself or your child at home. Try to avoid going to your GP, as norovirus can spread to others very easily.


Updated: 27 Jan 2020
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