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Foodborne Illness

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that each year in the United States, 48 million people get sick from a foodborne illness, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die.

There are more than 250 types of foodborne diseases. Typical symptoms include nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps and diarrhea. Symptoms can sometimes be severe, and some foodborne illnesses can even be life-threatening. These illnesses are often caused by contaminated food or water, but some can also be caused by contact with animals or from other people or the environment.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health routinely investigates reportable foodborne illnesses, including Campylobacter, E. coli and Salmonella. Our disease investigators contact and interview people who are sick with a reportable disease to gather epidemiologic data, like where the food was purchased, how it was prepared and who ate it. The information gathered from these interviews helps to narrow down potential causes of illness. When outbreaks occur, the sooner the cause is identified, the sooner the outbreak can be slowed and stopped.

Disease Prevention

Foodborne illness is common, but it is also preventable. There are four steps you should remember to keep yourself safe. These steps are:

  1. Clean — Wash your hands and surfaces often.
  2. Separate — Do not cross contaminate your foods.
  3. Cook — Cook your food to the right temperature.
  4. Chill — Refrigerate your food promptly.

Most food on your table goes through many steps before it gets there. This is called the food production chain and contamination can happen at any point along the way. Because of this, it is very important to follow food safety preparation steps to avoid consuming something that many be contaminated.


Anyone can contract a foodborne illness, but some groups are more likely. These groups include:

  • Children younger than 5 years;
  • Adults aged 65 and older;
  • People with immune systems weakened due to medical conditions such as diabetes, liver or kidney disease, alcoholism and HIV/AID, or people receiving chemotherapy or radiation therapy; and
  • Pregnant women.

Preventative measures should be taken if you or someone you care for falls into any of these categories.


Why is someone calling me from the Department of Health about my recent illness?

Investigators at the Pennsylvania Department of Health routinely call patients with reportable diseases to collect epidemiologic data, like food and exposure histories. The information gathered from interviews helps to narrow down potential causes of illness, which is used to try to prevent additional illnesses or solve outbreaks. Watch this video for more information on food poisoning and other enteric disease surveillance and reporting.

What is a reportable disease?

A reportable disease is an illness reported to the department by doctors and laboratories after a positive diagnosis. Reportable diseases are important to track within a population. Tracking helps public health officials trace disease trends and monitor outbreaks. View the list of reportable diseases.

I want to report a food-related illness. Where do I call?

If you have a food-related illness, your doctor or the laboratory that did the testing will report it to the department. You can also call 1-877-PA-HEALTH to speak with a public health nurse.

I want to report a food safety complaint. Where do I call?

Food safety complaints can be filed with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, which inspects food establishments across the commonwealth. View the food safety complaint form.

Why can't I go to work, school or daycare?

There are certain conditions that require a person to stay home from work, school or daycare to protect others from getting sick. The reason why may vary depending on where you live or work, so any specific question should be directed to your local health department or state health center. View contact information.

Food Safety in Pennsylvania

Disease Fact Sheets


For more information on food and food safety, please visit the following links:

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