Food-Borne Diseases: An Overview

Food-borne diseases are a major threat to human health. Bacteria, parasites, viruses, and chemicals find their way into food products via numerous routes. Once consumed, food contaminated with these pathogens can cause illness and disease.

Food Safety

Food Safety. Image Credit: Microgen/

Here, we discuss the nature of diseases caused by food contamination, its impact on health, symptoms, and high-risk foods most associated with food-borne diseases. Finally, we assess the progress towards preventing food-borne diseases.

A brief overview of food-borne diseases

Scientists have so far identified more than 200 diseases that develop as the consequence of consuming contaminated food. The World Health Organization recognizes the significant impact of food-borne diseases on human health, healthcare systems, and socioeconomic development. The issue of food-borne diseases is a growing concern, with the global burden of the disease and mortality rates harming diverse regions worldwide.

People contract food-borne diseases from consuming food that has been contaminated with bacteria, parasites, viruses, or chemicals at any part of the food journey, from production to delivery, preparation, and consumption. Cross-contamination, improper hand washing, inappropriate storage and cooking, and animal waste represent the main routes to food contamination.

The result of consuming contaminated food products varies and depends on the type of contamination, the person who consumed it, and the socioeconomic status of the region (as this impacts access to healthcare). Illness can range from diarrhea to cancer. While most food-borne illnesses cause gastrointestinal symptoms, several contaminants cause immunological, gynecological, and neurological symptoms. In some regions, food-borne diseases that cause diarrhea to present a major issue. The burden of these kinds of disease is carried disproportionately, with low- and middle-income countries being impacted most.

The impact of food-borne diseases

The latest data estimates that around one in 10 people globally, each year, become unwell following the consumption of contaminated food. In some cases, the illness is so severe that it causes death. Food-borne illnesses cost the lives of more than 420,000 people each year. Due to the preventable nature of the illness, there is an urgent need to establish effective strategies to protect those who are most vulnerable.

There is also a need to ensure that regions and populations most at risk as equipped to handle the consequences of food-borne diseases, which, in the majority of cases, are diarrhoeal diseases. In low- and middle-income countries these diseases present a major threat, with the population being at a greater risk of dying from this type of illness. In addition to diarrhoeal diseases, food-borne illnesses are known to cause other severe health issues, such as brain and neural disorders, cancer, kidney and liver failure, and reactive arthritis.

While food-borne diseases are preventable, as the main routes to contamination can be controlled for, the issue of food-borne diseases remains to be a major threat to human health. Factors such as increasing international trade, and the establishment of food chains of growing complexity are adding to the potential spread of food-borne diseases. In addition, growing cities, climate change, international travel, and migration are also acting as factors that may increase the risk of food-borne diseases.

Causes and symptoms of food-borne diseases

While several pathogens can cause food-borne illnesses, Campylobacteriosis, Cryptosporidiosis, Cyclosporiasis, Escherichia coli, Giardiasis, Listeriosis, Norovirus, Salmonellosis, Scombroid Fish Poisoning, Shigellosis, Toxoplasmosis, Vibrio Infection, Yersiniosis are among the most common causes of food-borne illness.

With these pathogens, symptoms of food-borne diseases usually present themselves as diarrhea and/or vomiting. In most cases, these symptoms last between one and seven days, and occasionally present alongside other symptoms such as abdominal cramps, fatigue, fever, joint pain, and nausea.

The symptoms of other food contaminants are more complex. For example, those that have been proven to be risk factors of cancer may not present symptoms immediately and their effects may be exacerbated as the contaminant accumulates over time. Research has shown that environmental polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, for instance, can contaminate food and act as a risk factor for lung cancer. Other studies have demonstrated that food contaminated with Aflatoxin and hepatitis B acts as risk factors for cancer in general.

Foods associated with food-borne diseases

Scientists have uncovered many foods that are most often associated with food-borne diseases. Most raw foods are at risk of carrying harmful pathogens, such as raw meat and poultry, raw shellfish, raw eggs, and unpasteurized milk.

Fruits and vegetables are also at risk of being contaminated with animal waste due to the manure used to fertilize the soil. Raw sprouts are at particular risk of contamination due to the growing conditions to make them sprout aligning as the perfect conditions for growing microbes.

Preventing food-borne diseases

While many pathogens can contaminate food and multiple routes to contamination, in general, they are fairly easy to control. Strategies such as effective hand washing, appropriate storage and cooking, and washing fruits and vegetables in clean water can significantly reduce the risk of food-borne illnesses. Additionally, giving low- and middle-income countries access to appropriate therapeutics is also vital to preventing unnecessary deaths from food-borne diseases.


Further Reading

Last Updated: Jun 3, 2021

Sarah Moore

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Sarah Moore

After studying Psychology and then Neuroscience, Sarah quickly found her enjoyment for researching and writing research papers; turning to a passion to connect ideas with people through writing.


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