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What Are Foodborne Pathogens and How to Prevent Them

BY Jaime Foster | May 8, 2014

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Each day someone becomes ill from a foodborne illness. Here are some tips on how to stay safe.


Although many cases go undiagnosed, the CDC estimates that 9.4 million cases of foodborne illness occur in the United States each year [reference]. Did you know that foodborne illness is more prevalent in the summer? More people are outside in the summer, and foodborne pathogens are able to grow more rapidly in the warm, humid summer environment. Given the right conditions, harmful bacteria can grow and reproduce rapidly on food, and when consumed, it can make you sick.

Three of the more common foodborne pathogens include Campylobacter jejuni, Salmonella and Listeria monocytogenes. Salmonella is the number one cause of bacterial diarrhea in the United States, while Campylobacter jejuni is the second.

The bacteria Campylobacter jejuni is one the most common causes of foodborne infection in the United States. The CDC estimates that there are over 800,000 cases of campylobacteriosis in the U.S. Children five years and younger are one of the most susceptible groups to become infected by Campylobacter jejuni. Mishandling of raw poultry and consumption of undercooked poultry are the major risk factors of becoming ill from Campylobacter, however raw (unpasteurized) milk, eggs and raw beef are also associated. Symptoms of illness include nausea, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, and headache.

Salmonella is a common cause of foodborne illness, and is the most common cause of foodborne illness-related deaths. Foods typically associated with salmonellosis, the infection caused by Salmonella, are poultry and poultry salads (i.e. chicken salad), meat and meat products, shell eggs, milk products, and other protein foods. According to the CDC, most cases occur in young children less than 5 years old, due to their underdeveloped immune systems. Symptoms of salmonellosis include nausea, diarrhea, abdominal pain, fever, headache, and chills.

Listeria monocytogenes is another bacterium that can make you sick. Listeria is unique because it can grow under refrigeration. Unpasteurized dairy products, including soft cheese, deli meats & hot dogs, vegetables and deli prepared salads (egg salad, chicken salad, tuna salad, etc.) have been linked to Listeria infection. Symptoms of listeriosis include fever, fatigue, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

To prevent you and your family from getting sick from a foodborne illness, follow a few basic steps:

  • Wash hands and cooking surfaces often
  • Avoid cross contamination
  • Cook foods thoroughly to the proper temperatures
  • Store and transport food at safe temperatures.
  • Select safe foods (i.e. pasteurized milk).
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