Food poisoning is an illness caused by eating contaminated food. Most people get better without the need for treatment.
In most cases, food that causes food poisoning is contaminated by bacteria, such as salmonella or Escherichia coli (E. coli), or a virus, such as the norovirus.
The symptoms of food poisoning usually begin 1-3 days after eating contaminated food. They include:
- feeling sick
- stomach cramps
- Some toxins can cause food poisoning within a much shorter time. In these cases, vomiting is the main symptom.
Foods particularly susceptible to contamination if not handled, stored or cooked properly include:
- raw meat and poultry
- raw eggs
- raw shellfish
- unpasteurised milk
- 'ready to eat' foods, such as cooked sliced meats, pâté, soft cheeses and pre-packed sandwiches
How is food contaminated?
Food can become contaminated at any stage during production, processing or cooking. For example, food poisoning can be caused by:
- not cooking food thoroughly (particularly poultry, pork, burgers, sausages and kebabs)
- not storing food that needs to be chilled at below 5°C correctly
- leaving cooked food for too long at warm temperatures
- someone who is ill or who has dirty hands touching the food
- eating food that has passed its ‘use by’ date
- cross-contamination (the spread of bacteria, such as E. coli, from contaminated foods)
If you've ever had food poisoning, you'll know how unpleasant it can be, even for a fit and healthy person. Sometimes food poisoning can cause serious illness and even death.
Most people assume that food poisoning comes from restaurants, cafes and fast food outlets, but according to the FSA you're just as likely to get ill from food prepared at home.
"People don't like to admit that the germs might have come from their own home," says Dr Andrew Wadge, chief scientist at the FSA. But it's a common myth to think that food poisoning only comes from a dodgy takeaway.
Follow these tips to reduce the risk of food poisoning at home.
1. Wash your hands
Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and hot water and dry them before handling food, after handling raw foods including meat, fish, eggs and vegetables, as well as after touching the bin, going to the toilet, blowing your nose, or touching animals, including pets.
2. Wash worktops
Wash worktops before and after preparing food, particularly after they've been touched by raw meat, including poultry, raw eggs, fish and vegetables. You don't need to use antibacterial sprays: hot soapy water is fine.
3. Wash dishcloths
Wash dishcloths and tea towels regularly and let them dry before you use them again. Dirty, damp cloths are the perfect place for bacteria to breed.
4. Use separate chopping boards
Use separate chopping boards for raw food and ready-to-eat food. Raw foods can contain harmful bacteria that spreads very easily to anything they touch, including other foods, worktops, chopping boards and knives.
5. Keep raw meat separate
It's especially important to keep raw meat away from ready-to-eat foods such as salad, fruit and bread. This is because these foods won't be cooked before you eat them, so any bacteria that gets on to the foods won't be killed.
6. Store meat on the bottom shelf
Always cover raw meat and store it on the bottom shelf of the fridge, where it can't touch other foods or drip onto them.
7. Cook food thoroughly
Cook food thoroughly and check that it's piping hot all the way through. Make sure poultry, pork, burgers, sausages and kebabs are cooked until steaming hot, with no pink meat inside.
8. Keep your fridge below 5°C
Keep your fridge temperature below 5°C. By keeping food cold, you stop food poisoning bugs growing.
9. Cool leftovers quickly
If you have cooked food that you're not going to eat straight away, cool it as quickly as possible (within 90 minutes) and store it in the fridge or freezer. Use any leftovers from the fridge within two days.
10. Respect 'use-by' dates
Don't eat food that's past its "use-by" date label. These are based on scientific tests that show how quickly harmful bugs can develop in the packaged food.