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You Can Help Detect and Solve Outbreaks of Foodborne Disease

Foodborne Illness Basics

Foodborne illnesses, or "food poisoning," are enteric (gastrointestinal) infections caused by food that contain harmful germs, like Salmonella, Escherichia coli, and Listeria. Most illnesses happen suddenly and last a short time, and most people get better without treatment. Foodborne illnesses can be more serious, especially for people at higher risk for complications.

Foods that are commonly linked to outbreaks of illnesses are meat and poultry, eggs, dairy, produce, and processed foods. Also, some types of animals or pets can carry these germs and can make people sick.

Foodborne Disease Outbreaks

Each year, about 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) get sick from a foodborne illness. Many of these cases occur one by one, but some illnesses are part of outbreaks.

If a large number of people have the same illness in a given period and area, it's called a cluster. The cluster is called an outbreak when an investigation of ill persons in a cluster finds they have something in common to explain how they all got the same illness.

Finding what the source of the outbreak is important, because it still may be making people sick. By investigating outbreaks, we can stop them so more people don't get sick, and we can learn about what went wrong, to keep similar outbreaks from happening in the future.

How You Can Help

You play an important role in helping the network of people and organizations who investigate foodborne disease outbreaks.

Three ways you can help when you're sick with a foodborne illness:

  1. Report Foodborne Illness to Your Health Department

    Contact your local or state health department
    to report your foodborne illness.

    How you can help:

    Reporting your illness and symptoms to your local or state health department helps them identify potential foodborne disease outbreaks. Health departments track reports of illnesses and look for clusters of people with similar symptoms and exposures.

    If you or someone you know became ill from eating a certain food or from contact with an animal, report it to your local or state health department.

  2. Talk to Your Health Care Provider

    Talk to your health care provider about testing you for foodborne illness.

    How you can help:

    Health care providers can order stool or blood tests that can tell them if you have a foodborne illness. These tests are sent to laboratories where germs are cultured (grown) from your sample and the results are uploaded to a database called PulseNet. PulseNet is a network made up of local and state public health laboratories and federal food regulatory laboratories that performs molecular surveillance of foodborne infections.

  3. Write Down What You Ate and What You Did

    Photo: Hands writing in notebookIf you get sick from a foodborne illness, make a food diary and write everything down that you can remember eating in the days before you started to become ill, including any restaurants or special events you may have attended.

    It is also important to write down any contact with pets or other animals you remember in the days before you got sick. Gather and save any food receipts you have kept from the grocery store, market, or restaurants. You may be asked to share these with investigators.

    How you can help:

    Usually, investigators interview ill persons over the phone to find out what they might have eaten before getting sick. These interviews include questions about different food items, food preparation, and places you may have eaten. They will also ask you about any contact with pets or other animals.

Three ways you can help when you're not sick with a foodborne illness:

  1. Photo: Group of people analyzing foodKeep Food Receipts and Enroll in Shopper Card Programs

    Keep your food receipts from the store, market, or restaurants. Routinely keeping food receipts from the store, market or restaurant can help you remember what you ate.

    How you can help:

    Shopper card programs at stores and markets can track your purchases and provide information on foods, brands and other details that can be very helpful to disease detectives during outbreak investigations. Investigators will only use your shopper card information with your permission.

  2. Keep Food Labels

    If you buy food and freeze it, freeze the original packaging or label with the food.

    How you can help:

    Freezing food with the original packaging or label helps identify what the food is and trace its source during an outbreak investigation.

  3. Participate in Disease Detective Investigations

    Sometimes during outbreak investigations, public health officials conduct an epidemiologic study called a "case-control study."

    How you can help:

    Officials interview sick people (cases) and healthy people (controls). The officials then compare the things the two groups ate and the things they did. If a public health official contacts you to answer questions about an outbreak, take the time to participate – you'll be helping with the investigation. The information you share may provide important clues to help disease detectives solve the outbreak and prevent others from getting sick!

Public Health Partners

Solving outbreaks requires a team effort. CDC foodborne disease detectives work with laboratorians in PulseNet, the national molecular subtyping network for foodborne disease surveillance and the national network of epidemiologists and other public health officials who investigate outbreaks of foodborne illnesses in the United States. CDC works with state and local health departments, regulatory partners at the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and other partners to ensure rapid, coordinated detection and response to multistate outbreaks of foodborne illnesses.

More Information

  • Page last reviewed: November 21, 2013
  • Page last updated: November 21, 2013
  • Content source:
    • Office of the Associate Director for Communication, Digital Media Branch, Division of Public Affairs
    • Page maintained by: Office of the Associate Director for Communication, Digital Media Branch, Division of Public Affairs
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