Foodborne Illness:
  Common foodborne germs

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the most common foodborne pathogens today are those caused by the bacteria Campylobacter, Salmonella, and E. coli, and by a group of viruses known as the Norwalk and Norwalk-like viruses.

Campylobacter bacteria cause fever, diarrhea, and abdominal cramps, and live in the intestines of healthy birds; most raw poultry meat, in fact, has Campylobacter on it.
Salmonella is widespread in the intestines of birds, reptiles, and mammals. It can spread to humans through a variety of foods of animal origin. It typically causes fever, diarrhea, and abdominal cramps.
E. Coli
E. coli is found in cattle and other similar animals. Human illness typically follows consumption of food or water that has been contaminated with microscopic bits of cow feces. E. coli can cause a severe and blood diarrhea and painful abdominal cramps. In 3-5% of cases, a complication called Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS) can occur several weeks after the initial symptoms. This severe complication includes profuse bleeding and kidney failure. 

In a microbial world, there are lots of chances for food to become contaminated as it is produced and prepared. Many foodborne microbes thrive in healthy animals (usually in their intestines) raised for food.
  • Meat and poultry carcasses becomes contaminated during slaughter by contact with small amounts of intestinal contents. 
  • Fresh fruits and vegetables can be contaminated if they are washed or irrigated with water that is contaminated with animal manure or human sewage. 
  • Later in food processing, other foodborne microbes can be introduced from infected humans who handle the food, or by cross-contamination from some other raw agricultural product.  

Unless otherwise noted, all content about foodborne illness and food safety policy is written by Madeline Drexler, Schuster Institute senior fellow.

Copyright © 2011 Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University, Waltham, MA.

Last page update: September 16, 2011