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Missoula City-County Health Department
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Frequently Asked Questions: Food Borne Illness

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Q:  What is a food borne illness?

A:  A food borne illness results from eating contaminated food or drink.  The illness may be result of bacterial, viral, chemical, or physical contamination to consumable items. 

Q: What practices lead to food borne illness?

A:  Food is not sterile.  Luckily though, most of the contaminants in foods will not make you sick.  However, foods can become contaminated in a number of different ways including:

1.)  Poor personal hygiene: the person handling your food does not wash their hands before starting preparation, or after handling something unclean.  In addition, if the person handling food is sick, the disease can easily be spread, which is why food establishments are required to prohibit sick workers from food or food related duties. 

2.)  Time or temperature abuse:  Perishable foods that require refrigeration for food safety can be compromised if left out too long and allowed to reach unsafe temperatures. 

3.)  Poor Cleaning and sanitizing:  Yes, it’s as simple as not washing the cutting board/knife, or not using clean equipment when handling raw meats and salad fixings.   

4.)  Cross contamination:  This is as simple as something dirty touching something clean, or something raw touching something ready-to-eat.  This can happen in any number of way and lead to foods becoming contaminated.  Examples might include: raw meat juices dripping on a cream pie; a food handler taking out the trash and not washing hands before making food; and clean and dirty items coming in contact like soiled utensils being used to prepare foods.

 When shortcuts are taken, or foods are not prepared in a wholesome and healthful manner, illness can result.

Q:  What do I do if I think I have a food borne illness?

A:  First of all, if you think you need to seek medical attention for your illness, do so promptly.  If you choose to see a medical professional, diagnostic tests (testing vomit or diarrhea) are very helpful in our investigation of a food borne illness.  Whether or not you see a doctors, please feel free to contact our office at 258-4755, or go online and fill out a food borne illness questionnaire.  One of the key pieces of information we will ask for is a 72-hour food history, so please make note of all consumable items in the 72 hours prior to symptoms beginning.

Q:  Can I get sick from some place other than a restaurant?

A:  Absolutely.  Food borne illness is not exclusive to the food service industry, and we can easily make ourselves and loved ones sick by not paying attention to food safety in the home, or at outings and events.  Make sure that you are washing your hands, keeping hot foods hot, cold foods cold, cooking foods thoroughly, cleaning and sanitizing, and chilling leftovers quickly.  For more information on food safety, visit our food safety education page or 'like; Missoula City-County Health on Facebook.  While much of the information is directed at restaurants, many of the general practices are easily adapted to the home.

Q:  What happens to the restaurant if I suspect they made me sick?

A:  So here’s the deal, often times it is not the last thing you ate that made you sick.  It’s easy to assume that since that is likely what you’ll see in the vomit, etc.; however, most food borne illness culprits require several hours to even several days or weeks to create the illness.  That is why we ask for a 72 hour food history in order to help us assess the likely source.  If it seems that your symptoms, timeline, food types, etc. suggest that there is a possibility of illness from a restaurant, the inspector for that establishment will do a food borne illness investigation, including an inspection.  This type of inspection, however, is different from the routine inspection our office conducts, because we focus on certain conditions that may have lead to a food borne illness.  This is why lab diagnostics can be very helpful.  The results those tests can direct our focus during the inspection toward certain types of foods or preparation practices where contamination from the pathogen or chemical can most likely be found.  For example:  If the diagnosis is Salmonella, we know to look at foods commonly associated with that organism, know to look at handling and cross-contamination, cooking temperatures, and ask about ill employees—things that might be critical to determine what could have led to the illness and how to prevent it in the future.  In most cases, the restaurant is told about the complaint when we discuss how they can improve on their preparation processes.  If there is a clear link between the illness and poor practices at the establishment, then follow-up inspections and even temporary closure can result.  The health department takes food borne illness complaints very seriously, so if there is reason to believe a restaurant is causing illness, the establishment is often encouraged to voluntarily close so the situation can be better assessed, or will be made to close by an Order from the Health Officer.

Q:  Where can I get more information about food borne illness?

A:  Our website is a great resource for general information related to licensed establishments, food safety, and provides links and information about food borne illness.  Please use this resource; however, If you need additional information, and feel free to contact our office when issues arise, or to speak directly with one of our sanitarians.

Q:  How do I report a food borne illness?

A:  Call us at 258-4755.

Have more questions? 

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