Let’s Talk About Food Poisoning

Did you know that the number one cause of foodborne illness is poor personal hygiene? It is critical that food establishments promote a culture of food safety.

Food establishments should implement an employee illness policy, proper handwashing procedures and a no bare hand contact policy with all ready-to-eat foods.

So who are the lucky ones to get affected by food poisoning?

All of us! Globally, it is seen that between one in three and one in four people gets food poisoning every year, so everyone is at risk – simply because we must eat.

Here are the top seven causes of food poisoning:

Salmonella, Listeria, Staphylococcus, Trichinosis, E. coli, Campylobacter, Clostridium.

It is difficult to get a decent estimate of the number of food poisonings that occur in South Africa. Our surveillance system is not effective at all. There are a few hundred cases reported per year, however, it is more likely to be in the region of hundreds of thousands of cases.

As a South African we are much less aware of food-borne illness because no public health campaigns are run to ensure that the food we prepare is safe to eat, and there is also little press coverage on the issue.

There are many different types of contaminations that can cause cases of food poisoning and it is usually difficult to detect the source. Often food smells and tastes fine but can actually contain bacteria, chemicals or viruses. These are just a few causes of food poisoning, and they could make you very sick if you consume food contaminated with them.


Understanding food safety is critical when you are managing any food storage, or food preparation areas. It is extremely beneficial to create and follow a solid HACCP process in your food space.

PMI can help you with the food safety instrumentation you need to make sure your process aids healthy food ready for consumption, info@pminstrumentation.co.za or 011 728 6099.

Food Poisoning Causes in Detail


Young children, older adults and people with a weakened immune system are most susceptible to salmonella bacteria.

Food can become contaminated with salmonella in many different ways, some of which are:

  • From coming into contact with an infected food handler
  • From faecal matter, both human and animal, transferred from unwashed hands, utensils or surfaces
  • From handling food after touching small rodents, reptiles and some birds
  • Beef, dairy, eggs and poultry are foods most likely to be contaminated with salmonella; however other foods, like fruits or vegetables, can also carry the bacteria.


Pregnant women, people with a lowered immune system, young children and older adults are the groups most at risk of infection.

Some examples of foods with a high risk of contamination are:

  • Raw and cooked seafood
  • Precooked deli meats
  • Premixed raw vegetables
  • Unpasteurised milk
  • Soft cheeses and soft-serve ice cream


Staphylococcus aureus, also known as S. aureus or golden staph, is a common bacterium that lives on the skin, in the mouth and in the nose. Golden staph infections often begin with a minor cut that then becomes infected and can vary from a small sore to a flesh-eating infection.


A Golden staph infection usually appears as a dry, yellow skin infection and symptoms can include:

  • Soreness
  • Redness
  • Heat
  • Swelling

In severe cases, people can experience

  • High fever
  • Skin rashes
  • Blisters
  • Impetigo – a highly contagious skin infection

Humans and animals are the primary sources of staphylococci and food handlers have a high risk of spreading the bacteria and causing food poisoning. Foods most likely to be contaminated with golden staph are meats, poultry, eggs and dairy.


Trichinosis is a roundworm infection that lives and reproduces inside a host body. The worms are usually found in meat-eating animals and can spread to humans through the consumption of trichinosis eggs found on raw or undercooked meats.

If the trichinosis eggs are ingested, they can live in the intestines and hatch into adult worms. The adult worms then produce more eggs that can travel to various different types of tissue in the body.


People infected with trichinosis don’t always have symptoms however if they do, they could experience:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Abdominal Pain
  • Diarrhoea
  • Tiredness

If the infection has progressed to the point that muscle or other tissue has been affected by the worms, then they could also experience:

  • Fever
  • Swelling
  • Headaches
  • Weakness
  • Muscle pain
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Conjunctivitis

E. coli

E. coli, or Escherichia coli, is a bacteria that lives in the digestive systems of humans and animals. Although of the many different types of E. coli, not all are harmful to humans, some can cause severe illness and even lead to death.

Humans can develop an E. coli infection when they come into contact with animal or human faeces. This usually occurs when contaminated water or food is consumed. E. coli can contaminate food throughout all stages of the food processing supply-chain and is often caused by poor food safety.

Particular high-risk foods are meat, poultry, dairy, fruits and vegetables. In some cases, entire towns have become ill after their water supply became infected with E. coli.


E. coli can cause different symptoms, depending on the infection. Some of which are:

  • Severe abdominal cramps
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fever
  • Bloody diarrhoea

In severe cases, E. coli can cause:

  • Anaemia
  • Kidney failure
  • Urinary tract infections


Campylobacter bacteria can cause food poisoning called campylobacteriosis. It is a very common cause of diarrhoea and most often affects infants, young adults and men.

Handling and then consuming bacteria, often found on raw or undercooked poultry, is the main cause of campylobacteriosis. The campylobacter bacterium is found inside live poultry is easily transferred during the initial processing stage. Studies indicate that a very high percentage of supermarket chicken is contaminated with traces of the bacteria.

Milk and water contaminated with campylobacter bacteria can also cause infection and unwashed hands can cause the infection to spread between humans and animals.


A campylobacteriosis infection can cause:

  • Stomach cramps
  • Diarrhoea (often bloody)
  • Fever
  • Nausea and vomiting


Clostridium, often-called C. diff, is a bacterium that lives in the digestive tract. In small quantities it is often harmless however, if the bacteria overgrow, they can cause the release of a toxin that attacks the host’s intestines. This condition is called Clostridium difficilecolitis or C. difficile.


Some possible symptoms of C. difficile are:

  • Abdominal pain and tenderness
  • Watery diarrhoea

In more severe cases, the infection can cause:

  • Weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • High fever
  • Severe stomach cramps
  • Blood or pus in the stool

Patients in hospitals and hospices are most at risk of contracting the infection, particularly those who have had surgery, chemotherapy, colon disease, kidney disease or have a weakened immune system.

Preventing the spread of clostridium bacteria is crucial for avoiding incidents of food poisoning. The spores of the bacteria are present in an infected stool and can live on surfaces for a long time. This means that practising good food safety is vital and keeping hands, surfaces and utensils sanitary is a must.