Module 4: What is Food-borne Illness?

Updated: Jan 6

Food-borne illness or food poisoning, is a disease that an individual contracts due to food that has been contaminated with bacteria, viruses, parasites/protozoa, fungi or toxins. Pathogens, which are considered harmful bacteria are microorganisms that can cause food-borne illness. However, customers and employees can also be harmed by food that is contaminated by non food-safe chemicals or foreign objects. The food handler and other employees within a food-service establishment play a crucial role in preventing food from becoming contaminated within the operation.

Not all contaminated foods will cause food-borne illness, but many of them can, which is why it is best practice to prevent contamination in the first place by using proper safe food handling to prevent customers from becoming ill, avoid fines or lawsuits, loss of wages, furloughs, defamation of the brand, as well as preventing legal or financial repercussions. Symptoms of the disease may develop over a span of hours, days, or weeks and the symptoms include vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, headache, fever or upset stomach. Some symptoms can present severely enough, especially in immune-compromised individuals, to cause comas, paralysis, and can even be fatal.

As an owner or operator of the establishment, it is important to begin by developing an HACCP plan. HACCP will be discussed in further detail in a later module, but it promotes food safety through all phases of the flow of food. It is also imperative to provide your employees with a safe work environment and the customers with a safe eating environment. It is the role of the owner or operator to ensure that all food handlers are provided with and receive safe food handling certifications and training, and enforcing the safe handling of food by providing a good food safety culture. It is also good practice to have a list of standardized recipes, as well as a compendium of any potential allergens that may be present in a dish. It is also good practice to put items on the menu that are still edible for customers with allergies, intolerances or sensitivities.

As a food handler, it is important to be consistent and practice good food safety practices. If the employer does not provide food safety training, you can consult this list of food handler's certification training programs in Canada and the U.S. It is the responsibility not only of the owner/operator, but the food handler themselves to ensure that proper training and certification is taken, prior to working in a food-service environment. If presenting with symptoms of an illness, call in sick to work to protect your other co-workers and the customers. The manager may request a doctor's note, which may be a mild inconvenience, but it is less inconvenient than someone else becoming ill due to your negligence to provide a food-service environment free of illness. If you observe unsafe food handling practices in your workplace, it is possible in some areas to report any infractions online to your local public health unit, or by calling the health unit directly to file a formal complaint. Doing so will prompt an inspection by the local health unit to correct the issues identified by the individual who reported the infractions.

As a customer, it is your responsibility to report any cases of food-borne illness to your local health unit so that they can find the source of the illness, in hopes of preventing others from falling ill as well. If you have any sensitivities, intolerances, or allergies, it is paramount that you notify the server upon ordering food, who can verify with the chef or food handler to ensure that proper precautions are taken and verify the ingredients within the dish. However, it does take a lot of extra preparation, food safety attention and sanitation to modify dishes in this manner. Do not ever tell a food service worker that you are allergic to an item, if you truly just don't like it. There is a difference between actual allergies and preferences.

As a server, it is important to know the items on the menu well, and understand all of their ingredients. This includes the ingredients that are within each item in the dish. For example, if a customer claims to be allergic to garlic, it is very important to know that although there may not be garlic directly listen in the ingredients on the menu or put directly in the dish, there is more than likely garlic in the tomato sauce for the chicken parmesan. Any pre-made sauces, frozen items or other items that are not made in-house, should be double checked as they tend to have warning labels such as: "may contain nuts, sesame, soy, mustard, etc." Consult the chef directly, or refer to a standardized recipe book containing the information to be sure. The customer would also much prefer if you admitted to not knowing the answer and leaving briefly to find the correct information, than trying to provide them with inaccurate information that could cause them to be ill and in some cases could be fatal.

Margaret Spence Krewen, et al. Advanced.Fst : Food Safety Training in Canada. Toronto, Ont., Traincan, 2012.

Labensky, Sarah R, et al. On Cooking : A Textbook of Culinary Fundamentals. Don Mills, Ontario, Pearson, 2018.

Gisslen, Wayne. Professional Cooking for Canadian Chefs. Hoboken, Nj, Wiley, 2018.