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Food Contamination And Food Poisoning

What is Contaminated Food?

“Contaminated food” is a phrase that refers to just about anything in food that is not supposed to be there. It generally covers a wide variety of things, from items that you can see to those that are unseen.

Why is this important? Because contaminated food has the potential to make people sick. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 48 million people get sick from food every year–and about 128,000 of those people get so sick that they have to be hospitalized.

What is the Difference Between Food Contamination and Food Poisoning?

Food contamination and food poisoning are related, but slightly different. Basically, food contamination refers to the foreign object in the food (such as hair or bacteria). Food poisoning, or “foodborne illness,” refers to the illness that occurs either because of contaminated food or because the food has been improperly handled in some way. 

For example, a piece of chicken was improperly cooked or a pot of soup held at an improper temperature could allow for the growth of bacteria that result in foodborne illness.

What Types of Contamination Can Be Found in Food?

Contaminants can come in a variety of ways. The most common food contaminants include:

    • Physical Objects: Sometimes you may find an actual object in the food that should not be there. Examples include hair, rocks, bugs, metal pieces, and other physical items.
    • Chemicals or Toxins: These contaminants can include chemicals or pesticides from the production or farming process. However, in some cases the packaging of the food can also break down over time and release toxins into the food.
  • Biological Contaminants: You are likely more familiar with the idea of biological contaminants than you realize. At times, food producers or supermarkets may issue warnings or recalls in the news for food items due to contamination by bacteria, viruses, or some other pathogen. Most often these recalls involve contamination by salmonella, E.coli, or listeria bacteria. (We will talk more about food recalls below.)

What are Food Illness Lawsuits?

Most cases that involve foodborne illness are because of biological components–bacteria or viruses that are in the food and cause illness.  Most cases of food poisoning or foodborne illness arise from microbes like norovirus or E.coli, listeria, and salmonella bacteria. 

These foodborne illnesses can be spread by not cooking food properly, not keeping food at proper temperatures, or cross-contamination with other foods (for example, cutting salad greens on a cutting board that was previously used for raw chicken–without cleaning the board between foods). 

Symptoms of foodborne illnesses can include nausea, abdominal pain, cramps, fever, headaches, vomiting, and diarrhea, and may start between two and six hours after eating contaminated food. In some cases, symptoms can be severe and require medical attention. 

In certain situations, foodborne illnesses can lead to long-term health issues and even (in very severe cases) death. Children, the elderly, and people with weak immune systems are most susceptible to developing complications from foodborne illnesses.

If you have received contaminated food, or if you have been sick due to foodborne illness, you may be wondering if you have a case for a lawsuit. The truth is, a lawsuit based upon foodborne illness can be a little tricky. There are certain things that you will need to prove in order for your case to be successful. 

The things you will need to prove also depend on the laws of your state and on the way you approach your case, whether you bring claims in the areas of strict liability, negligence, or breach of warranty.

The Spread of E. coli and causes of food contamination

Most strains of E. coli are harmless, and some even assist with the process of digesting food. Certain strains, however, have variations that make them highly toxic to humans. The most common cause of harmful E. coli infections is a strain known as E. coli 0157:H7. E. coli bacteria generally live within mammals' digestive tracts and can be spread by contact with fecal matter from infected animals. Contamination can be cased by: 

  • Improper hygiene among food industry workers (as well as day care and nursing home workers)
  • Inadequate safeguards in farms, slaughterhouses, and food processing plants
  • Undercooked meat, particularly red meat
  • Poor waste management, which can potentially contaminate water supplies
  • Incorrect food storage or preparation

Unexpected medical expenses and other trauma can result from this serious condition. If it can be proved that a restaurant was negligent, whether willfully or not, can seek financial compensation for your medical expenses; lost wages and emotional distress.

Toxic E. coli strains cause severe abdominal cramps and diarrhea, sometimes with fever and/or nausea. If victims do not receive prompt and comprehensive medical treatment, they can suffer from dehydration, kidney failure, and even death. Food industry workers and employers have a very important responsibility to recognize the risks of E. coli infection and protect their customers.

Who Can Sue for Contaminated Food?

In the majority of cases, the person who was made sick by contaminated food is the person who can sue for the injury. However, there are a few instances where others may be able to sue for the injury:

    • Parents of Children: If a child is sick from contaminated food, their parents can sue on their behalf. Even if the parents are not currently together either parent can file a lawsuit on behalf of their child.
    • Guardians of Incapacitated Persons: Sometimes, in extreme cases, foodborne illnesses may leave a person incapacitated or mentally impaired, and unable to file suit for themselves. In these cases, guardians or family members may sue on their behalf.
    • Class Action Lawsuits: In cases where the contaminated food makes a large number of people sick, then a personal injury attorney or advocacy group can initiate the lawsuit on behalf of the group of plaintiffs.
  • Wrongful Death Cases: In extreme cases, people may die from foodborne illnesses. If this occurs, then a family member can initiate a lawsuit for a wrongful death case. In the case of a wrongful death claim, the family member initiating the lawsuit would need to be an immediate family member, such as a parent, spouse, or child of the deceased.

An experienced personal injury lawyer can help you determine who may initiate the lawsuit under the circumstances of your specific case.

How Do I Prove My Food Illness Came from the Defendant?

Generally, in order to prove your claim, you will need to show that the food was contaminated, and that the contamination of the food caused your illness. Depending on what state you're in and what avenue you used to file your case, you may need to prove a few more things, as well. When it comes to food poisoning, the business selling the food may be liable for failure to exercise reasonable care in storing and preparing food, or may be found strictly liable for a defective food product. Additionally, in certain cases, it may have breached a warranty.


Under general negligence principles, a business has a duty to exercise reasonable care. In the restaurant context, "reasonable care" means that the restaurant has a duty to maintain a safe environment, produce safe products (i.e. meals) and eliminate unreasonable dangers. A negligence claim beings to take shape once the restaurant breaches its duty to customers. For example, a restaurant breaches its duty by maintaining a dirty kitchen and storing food in unsanitary ways.

In a negligence case against a store or restaurant for food poisoning, a plaintiff (the person who is suing) must prove that the business caused the food poisoning. In other words, it must be proved that the business's unsafe food caused the plaintiff's illness. Proving causation is often difficult in these cases. As an additional hurdle for a plaintiff in a food poisoning case, he or she must prove that it was the business's food and not other food that caused the illness. The plaintiff may have eaten breakfast at home and then ate at a restaurant for lunch and became ill. The source must be isolated and identified. A doctor must be consulted immediately to determine the illness and identify of the contaminated food.

Finally, a plaintiff must prove harm or injury. Simply becoming sick will satisfy this requirement. However, your degree of sickness may determine whether it is worthwhile to file an action in court against the store or restaurant.

Strict Products Liability

Most states have some form of strict products liability. In contaminated food cases, a plaintiff must show that the food served by the restaurant or bought at the store was defective and unreasonably dangerous. It must also be shown that the defective and unreasonably dangerous food caused the illness. There is no requirement of showing lack of reasonable care (this is the main way that strict products liability differs from negligence). A business can be liable under strict products liability for selling the contaminated food. In fact, everyone in the chain of distribution can be sued, including the food distributor, retailer, wholesaler, and manufacturer.

Breach of Warranty

Under commercial laws, most states have implied warranties. There is generally an implied warranty that a product will conform to an ordinary buyer's expectations and follow minimal quality specifications. Where contaminated food causes food poisoning, the injured consumer can claim that the food did not conform to the ordinary buyer's expectation of non-contaminated food. Similar to strict products liability, an implied warranty will follow the food through the chain of distribution unless it is expressly restricted or voided by contract.

With regards to evidence for your case, keep track of how much time passed between your last meal and the beginning of your symptoms. If you seek medical attention for your illness, keep the records of your treatment and any tests that your doctor runs, as well as copies of any bills you receive. 

Whether you bought the contaminated food at the grocery store or you brought home a doggy bag from the restaurant, save those leftovers. While it may not be conclusive, you might be able to have the leftovers analyzed for the bacteria or viruses that caused your illness. 

The defendant may be able to argue that you improperly stored your leftovers or manipulated them in some way to benefit your case, but at least you will have something other than just your word to show that the food was contaminated.

Damages from Food Poisoning

As discussed above, when food poisoning causes illness and injuries, legally recoverable damages in a personal injury case can include:

  • medical bills
  • lost income
  • out-of-pocket expenses
  • pain and suffering, and
  • emotional distress.

In rare and extreme cases, death can result from food poisoning. The loved ones of the deceased may be able to file a wrongful death action against the liable business.