Foodborne Illness FAQs


Where can I find information about food safety?
What is foodborne illness?
Who makes sure our food is safe to eat?
What are the risk factors that contribute to foodborne illness?
Who is at highest risk for foodborne illness?
How does food become hazardous?
What is cross-contamination?
Why are microorganisms important?
What is the greatest threat to food safety?
What conditions encourage bacteria to grow?
What can I do to protect myself and my family?
What should I do if I have a question or a food safety concern about a food product I have purchased?
How do I report a foodborne illness?

Where can I find information about food safety?Back to top
Information can be obtained from the following:

  • Nebraska Department of Agriculture-Food Safety and Consumer Protection 402-471-3422
  • Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services at 402-471-2937
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1-800-535-4555
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 1-800-332-4010

What is foodborne illness?Back to top
A foodborne illness is a disease that is transmitted to humans by food. Recent developments in diagnosing and tracking reported illnesses have helped the public become more aware that certain types of illness may be related to the food they ate prior to becoming sick.

Who makes sure our food is safe to eat?Back to top
Everyone plays a role in helping to ensure that the food we eat is safe and wholesome:

  • Growers, packers and distributors
  • Wholesale food establishments
  • Retail food establishments
  • Regulatory and inspection agencies
  • Consumers
The Nebraska Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Consumer Protection, U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and other government agencies work hard to protect our food supply. Food safety is a big part of the job at these agencies, but keeping food safe is actually everybody's responsibility. Food producers, processors, sellers and individual consumers like you also have an important part to play. The greatest threats to food safety — bacteria and viruses — are the hazards over which you as a consumer have the greatest control. Don't let yourself down. Accept your share of the responsibility for keeping your food supply safe.

What are the risk factors that contribute to foodborne illness?Back to top
These are the top five risk factors contributing to foodborne illness:

  • Food from unsafe sources
  • Inadequate cooking
  • Improper hot/cold holding temperatures
  • Contaminated equipment
  • Poor personal hygiene
The cost of foodborne illness to the nation, based on direct medical expenses, lost wages and productivity, and industry loss of tainted food products, is estimated at $1 billion to $10 billion annually. The reported incidence of foodborne illness is on the rise.

Who is at highest risk for foodborne illness?Back to top

  • Infants and very young children,
  • The elderly,
  • Pregnant women and
  • Individuals with weakened immune systems, such as those with HIV, AIDS, liver disease or cancer.
Ask your doctor if you or a family member falls into a "high risk" category. If you do, your doctor may recommend foods to avoid.

How does food become hazardous?Back to top
Food becomes hazardous by contamination. Contamination is the unintended presence of harmful substances or microorganisms in food. Food can become contaminated from chemical, physical or biological sources.

What is cross-contamination?Back to top
Cross-contamination is the transportation of harmful substances to food by:

  1. Hands that touch raw foods, such as chicken, then touch food that will not be cooked, like salad ingredients or other ready-to-eat foods.
  2. Surfaces or cleaning cloths that touch raw foods, are not cleaned and sanitized, then touch ready-to-eat food.
  3. Raw or contaminated foods that touch or drip fluids on cooked or ready-to-eat foods.

Why are microorganisms important?Back to top
Microorganisms are everywhere. You may not see, taste or smell them, but they hide on your body, in the air, on kitchen counters and utensils, and in food. The main microorganisms are viruses, parasites, fungi and bacteria.

What is the greatest threat to food safety?Back to top
Of all the microorganisms, bacteria are the greatest threat to food safety. Bacteria are single-celled, living organisms that can grow quickly at favorable temperatures. Some bacteria are useful. We use them to make foods like cheese, buttermilk, sauerkraut and pickles. Other bacteria are infectious-disease-causing agents called pathogens that use the nutrients found in potentially hazardous foods to multiply.

What conditions encourage bacteria to grow?Back to top
Bacteria can live in hotter and colder temperatures than humans, but they do best in a warm, moist, protein-rich environment that is pH neutral or slightly acidic. There are exceptions, however. Some bacteria thrive in extreme heat or cold, while others can survive under highly acidic or extremely salty conditions. Most bacteria that cause disease grow fastest in the temperature range between 41 and 135 degrees F, which is known as THE DANGER ZONE.

What can I do to protect myself and my family?Back to top
Use good sense when you shop. Don't buy foods in dented, rusty, bulging or leaky cans or in cracked jars or jars with loose or bulging lids. If you have such items at home, throw them out.

  • Never buy cracked eggs. On your shopping trip, pick up frozen and perishable foods last and get them into your refrigerator and freezer at home as soon as possible.
  • Keep food out of the DANGER ZONE. This means hot foods should be kept at 135 degrees F or above and cold foods at 41 degrees F or below.
  • Don't let cooked or refrigerated foods, such as salads, sit at room temperature for more than two hours.
  • Keep food free from organisms that cause food poisoning by keeping the food, the preparation equipment and yourself clean.
  • Wash your hands with soap and warm water before you start preparing food, before you handle a different food (for example, if you just handled raw chicken, wash your hands before preparing a salad), and after using the bathroom.
  • Don't sneeze or cough on food.
  • Thoroughly rinse fruits and vegetables with water before eating or preparing.
  • Organisms can "travel" from raw to cooked food, so never let raw food touch cooked food.
  • Wash utensils, including the cutting board, with soap and warm water and rinse again in a sanitizing solution like bleach in between each preparation step.
  • Cook food hot enough to sizzle. High food temperatures (165 degrees F to 212 degrees F) reached by boiling, baking, frying and roasting kill most foodborne illness organisms.
Cook foods thoroughly to a high enough temperature to kill organisms. Never eat raw or undercooked eggs; they might contain harmful organisms. When cooking in the microwave, stir or turn the food and turn the dish several times. Once cooked, keep hot foods hot at 135 degrees F or above until served. If you're not absolutely certain about a food, throw it out.

What should I do if I have a question or a food safety concern about a food product I have purchased?Back to top
Become educated. Use the many resources available to you.

  • Contact NDA Food Safety and Consumer Protection at 402-471-3422.
  • Contact the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service.
  • Contact the FDA.
  • Contact the retailer where you bought the product. Store managers are knowledgeable and want you to continue shopping with them.
You should report a foodborne illness directly to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services at 402-471-2937.

How do I report a foodborne illness?Back to top
You can report your illness online by visiting DHHS's website (scroll down to "Report a Foodborne Illness"). If you prefer to report by phone, you may call your local health department or Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services at 402-471-2937.”