Communicable Diseases

Stop and think a minute before you take that next bite of food. It just might kill you. People can get sick when the food they eat or drink contains disease causing bacteria, viruses or parasites. These bugs can cause abdominal pain, fevers, diarrhea and even death. The Centers for Disease Control reports that one in six Americans contract some form of food borne illness each year. Of the nearly fifty million who get sick, 128,000 end up in the hospital and 3,000 in the morgue. It’s a serious situation but one that can be addressed successfully by taking care in the way foods are handled as they travel from the farm to your table.


What is a communicable disease?

An infectious or communicable disease is a sickness that can be transmitted from person to person by contact with them or their discharges or by an indirect vector such as food. A cold is a good example of a disease transmitted by contact with another person’s skin, coughs or sneezes.

Secondary sources, called vectors can also transmit disease germs. People who are carrying germs can pass them on to other things like food, a drinking glass or a telephone. Everyone who uses those items then stands at risk of becoming sick. Like food, shopping cart handles and cash are common vectors for indirect infection. This is why many major retailers now place antibacterial wipes close to their shopping carts as a customer courtesy. It helps to break the chain of infection from person to person.

Most common causes of food borne illness:

  • Norovirus
  • Salmonella
  • Listeria monocytogenes
  • Clostridium perfrigens
  • Campylobacter spp.
  • Staphylococcus aureus
  • E. Coli
  • Toxoplasma gondii


There are hundreds of germs and parasites that can get into food and drinks to make you sick. Of these, only eight cause the majority of cases of food borne illness. Of these eight, Norovirus is the most common causing over 50 percent of food borne illness incidents. This bug, often called stomach flu, is capable of making you really sick with inflamed stomach and bowels, nausea and vomiting. The virus is not related to the influenza virus and spreads quickly in enclosed environments such as schools, nursing facilities and daycare centers.

Food handlers in restaurants or the fresh foods departments in the supermarket get the virus into the food supply when they handle produce or other raw foods. Someone with the virus is contagious for the first three days after contracting the illness. If a cook or food handler works while sick, the virus can easily get into the food and be transmitted to others.


One of the most common food borne illnesses leading to hospitalization, Salmonellosis is cause by the Salmonella bacteria. The bacteria are found on raw milk, raw meats, poultry and egg shells. While there are many species of the salmonella bacteria, Salmonella typhimurium and Salmonella enteritidis are most commonly associated with food borne communicable disease.

Cross contamination is the cause of many Salmonellosis outbreaks. Cooks or other food handlers working with raw poultry or meat go on to their next task without thoroughly washing their hands, the cutting boards, knives and other implements used to handle the meat. This allows the bacteria naturally present in poultry and meat to be transferred to other foods.


Masters in public health tell us that good hygiene practices, washing hands and wearing latex gloves while handling raw foods can dramatically reduce the risk of getting food borne illness from Salmonella bacteria. Many restaurants take prevention a step further by having dedicated knives, implements and cutting boards for produce, meat, poultry and fish. Color coded and washed and sanitized after every use, their use helps keep their customers safe from food borne illness.

If you are ill, do not handle food that others will eat. Wash your hands after every food handling task to prevent cross contamination and after eating, coughing or using the bathroom. Good hygiene, careful food handling and storage are the best way to prevent food borne communicable disease.