Food-borne illness

To avoid food-borne illnesses, observe hygiene rules and the cold and heat chain. If you suspect a food to be the cause of a food-borne illness, keep it refrigerated and contact the Federal Agency for the Safety of the Food Chain (FASFC): pointcontact@afsca.be or 0800 13 550. If symptoms persist or worsen, contact your general practitioner. 

What is a food-borne illness?

Please note! Food-borne illnesses are referred to in everyday language as “food poisoning”. In actual fact, food poisoning is a specific type of food-borne illness caused by toxins.

A food-borne illness is an occurrence during which one or several individuals experience symptoms whose cause is probably linked to the ingestion of water or food contaminated by microorganisms or by their toxins. 

Food-borne illnesses include: 

  • food-borne infections: ingestion of living microorganisms that develop in the human intestine and disrupt the digestive system; the first symptoms appear between 8 hours and a few days after the meal (diarrhoea, stomach ache and fever)
  • food poisoning: ingestion of bacterial toxins that are already present in the food; symptoms occur more quickly, usually within 6 hours after the meal (nausea, vomiting)
  • food-borne illnesses: ingestion of microorganisms via contaminated food, which develop in the human intestine and produce toxins in situ.

DID YOU KNOW? Other substances can cause food-borne illnesses. Marine biotoxins found in seafood because of toxic algae belong to the chemical contaminants and can also cause food poisoning (diarrhoea, vomiting and nervous conditions). Histamine found in fish, nuts, meat and other food obtained by microbial fermentation (wine, sausages, marinades) can cause allergic symptoms (redness, itching, migraine, dizziness) and gastrointestinal disorders. 

Food-borne illness outbreaks

One or several individuals can fall ill after consuming the same product.

A food-borne illness outbreak is considered to occur when at least two cases are recorded, with similar symptoms (usually gastrointestinal symptoms) that can be linked to the same food source. 

It is important to warn your doctor if you come down with symptoms to better control these food-borne illnesses. If several similar cases are reported, it will be easier to identify the source of the food-borne illness and avoid its spread. 

Summary table of microorganisms, their toxins, symptoms and food at risk

Microorganisms or toxins Incubation Symptoms Food at risk
Salmonella 6 to 72 hours
  • Diarrhoea
  • Fever 
  • Chills
  • Headache
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Vomiting
Duration: 2 to 3 days and more
  • Poultry
  • Preparations made from raw eggs
  • Pork meat
  • Dairy products
  • Chocolate
Campylobacter jejuni and coli 1 to 5 days
  • Stomach cramps
  • Diarrhoea 
  • Muscle aches
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Nausea
Duration: 7 to 10 days
  • Poultry
  • Unpasteurised milk
Escherichia coli 3 to 9 days
  • Haemorrhagic colitis (watery, bloody diarrhoea)
  • Hemolytic-uremic syndrome (bloody diarrhoea, kidney failure, death)

Duration: >1 week

  • Minced beef
  • Unpasteurised milk
  • Cheese made from unpasteurised milk
  • Germinated seeds
Yersinia enterocolitica
  
  
3 to 7 days
  • Gastroenterocolitis syndrome
  • Acute watery diarrhoea
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Pseudo-appendicitis
  • Joint Inflammation
  • Pork meat
  • Minced pork
  • Milk
  • Water
Histamine A few minutes to a few hours
  • Red blotches on face
  • Swollen face
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Peppery taste in the mouth
  • Burning sensation in the throat
  • Itching
  • Tingling of the skin
  • Palpitations
  • Tuna
  • Anchovies
  • Mackerel
  • Sardines
Vibrio parahaemolyticus 12 hours
  •  
  • Gastro-enteritis (watery diarrhoea
  • abdominal cramps, sometimes nausea, vomiting, fever and headache
  • Raw or undercooked fish and seafood
Shigella 12 to 50 hours
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Bloody, purulent or glutinous diarrhoea
  • Shellfish
  • Vegetables
  • Water
  • Food handled by people
Staphylococcus aureus toxins 
  
2 to 4 hours
  • Nausea
  • Violent vomiting
  • Drop in blood pressure
  • Abdominal pain
  • Fever    
  • Milk Cheese
  • Ice
  • Poultry
  • Meat preparations
  • Cured meats
  • Fish
  • Ready meals
  • Pastries
  • (Food handled by people)
Bacillus cereus emetic toxin 1 to 5 hours
  • Vomiting
  • Products rich in starch 
  • Rice
  • Pasta
  • Preparations with potatoes
Bacillus cereus diarrhoeal toxins     
     
 
8 to 16 hours
  • Diarrhoea
  • Abdominal cramps   
Products rich in proteins:
  • Dairy products
  • Powdered milk
  • Meat stews
  • Herbs
  • Spicy food
Clostridium perfringens toxins 
         
 8 to 24 hours 
  • Sudden colic
  • Diarrhoea
  • Short-term benign condition 
  • Food insufficiently chilled after cooking
  • Ready meals (meat-based)
Clostridium botulinum toxins (Botulism)      
    
12 to 48 hours
  • Double vision
  • Thirst
  • Constipation
  • Dizziness
  • Difficulties with swallowing and speech
  • Respiratory problems
  • Paralysis
  • Death
  • Home-made preserves and food in jars (poorly sterilised)
  • Fish
  • Honey
  • Cured meats (not treated with nitrite)

Marine biotoxins: amnesic toxins (ASP)       

 

2 to 48 hours Immediate symptoms (2 to 24 hours):
  • Diarrhoea 
  • Nausea 
  • Vomiting 
  • Abdominal pain 
  • Headache

Late symptoms (24 to 48 hours):

  • Disorientation
  • Memory loss
  • Brain damage
  • Convulsions
  • Coma that can lead to death
  • Bivalve molluscs
Marine biotoxins: lipophilic toxins (DSP) 0.5 to 3 hours
  • Diarrhoea
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Chills

Secondary disorders such as headache, dizziness, fever and tachycardia are also observed occasionally

  • Bivalve molluscs
Marine biotoxins: paralytic toxins (PSP) 0.5 to 2 hours
  • Numbness of the lips, face, arms and legs
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Bivalve molluscs
Norovirus 24 to 48 hours
  • Sudden diarrhoea
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Headache
  • Light fever
  • Shellfish
  • Molluscs
  • (Food handled by people)
  • Red berries and smoothies

The main purpose of food-borne illness monitoring is to trace their cause in order to take preventive measures to avoid other cases.

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