Food Poisoning

When people suffer sickness and diarrhoea they often suspect they are suffering from food poisoning. However, these symptoms can also result from viral infections, which may be airborne, or some other cause, and may not in fact be food related.

The only way of finding out whether you have food poisoning is to provide a stool (faecal) sample for testing. This can be arranged by your GP. If you have medical concerns, you should seek advice from your GP.

We will investigate reports of illness. Please contact the Health Protection Team on 01962 840 222 to report such illnesses or make a complaint about a food premises that you think might be linked to your illness.

Note: It is important to inform your Doctor or Environmental Health Officer (EHO) if you:-

  • Are a food handler whose work is connected with the preparation or handling of food and drink.
  • Are a health care or nursery member of staff or other staff who has direct contact or contact through serving food, with highly susceptible patients or person to whom food poisoning would have particularly serious consequences.

It may not be due to your last meal. Very often, people suffering from suspected food poisoning feel sure that the cause is the last meal eaten, especially if this happens to be a meal at a restaurant or takeaway.

Food poisoning bacteria take quite a long time before actually making you ill. Usually between 12 -48 hours but sometimes longer. So it is more likely that the cause of the illness is something eaten the previous day or even 2-3 days earlier. Some illnesses can take up to 11 days before you show any symptoms.

The symptoms of food poisoning can vary but generally include some or all the following:

  • Diarrhoea
  • Vomiting (sickness)
  • Nausea
  • Fever
  • Headaches
  • Stomach pains

What are the main causes of food poisoning?

  • Food prepared too far in advance and then kept at room temperature. Food poisoning bacteria grow rapidly at room temperature. Any food which has been prepared in advance must therefore be cooled as quickly as possible and refrigerated in order to slow bacterial growth.
  • Undercooking of food. This may be dangerous as any harmful bacteria in the food will not be destroyed.
  • Not reheating food to high enough temperatures. Reheated products are those that have been previously cooked, allowed to cool and then reheated before consumption. If the cooling has not been rapid enough, any spores in the food will have had time to germinate. It is vital that these products are thoroughly re-cooked in order to destroy any bacteria that may have been produced by the spores
  • Cross contamination from raw food to cooked food. Food poisoning bacteria may be naturally present in raw food, especially raw meat and poultry. If these bacteria are allowed to contaminate food that is going to be eaten without receiving further heat treatment, food poisoning can result. Cross contamination may be direct, for example poor storage when the juices from raw meat are allowed to drip on to cooked food, or indirect for example via a chopping board, work surface dirty dishcloths or the food handlers hands.
  • Failure to keep hot food above 63ºC. Cooking destroys bacteria but not their spores, therefore if hot foods are held below 63ºC the spores may germinate and produce food poisoning bacteria.
  • Poor personal hygiene and infected food handlers. Poor personal hygiene can result in food becoming contaminated with bacteria. Additionally, persons suffering from infections, e.g. vomiting, diarrhoea and infected cuts can contaminate the food. It is important to remember that anyone who has been in contact with someone suffering from food poisoning can pass on bacteria, even though they may show no symptoms themselves.

Reporting food poisoning
Reports of food poisoning reach us by different routes. Sometimes people have seen their GP who then reports the illness to us. Doctors are required by law to report either confirmed or suspected food poisoning. Affected persons may also notify us directly without first having seen their GP. We will respond to all cases by telephoning the affected person and asking for a lot of details about the illness, including the dates and times of symptoms, a food history, your occupation and details of people in your household. This information can be vital in preventing further spread of the infection. You are likely to also be asked to provide a stool specimen if you have not already done so.

Implicated food premises
If there is evidence that your illness is related to a specific restaurant or takeaway in the area then we will want to discuss the matter in detail with you.

In most cases it is very difficult to connect an event of illness to a particular business. Very often the food eaten will have been destroyed by the time your illness shows its symptoms, no stool samples are provided to actually confirm food poisoning, or the incident is reported after the person is well so a sample would be pointless.

Of course if a whole group of people at a party or wedding reception for example are all affected by the same symptoms at the same time then circumstantial evidence may be all that is needed to take the matter further.

If you want information on a specific illness please refer to the Health Protection Agency website.