Certified food protection manager training teaches food management professionals the causes and prevention of foodborne illness, but sometimes the tracing of foodborne illness sources doesn’t get as much attention as it deserves. Foodborne illness incubation refers to the time that lapses between when contaminates are ingested and an infected consumer begins showing symptoms. We find foodborne illness incubation useful when trying to identify the type of illness and the product that caused outbreaks.
Using Foodborne Illness Incubation As A Forensic Tool
When people get sick from eating contaminated food, they’ll either call the local health department or the eating establishment they feel sickened them. When they do, there are three important questions that need to be asked:
- What did you eat?
- When did you begin feeling symptoms
- How long did your symptoms last?
The what is important, but you’ll need more information besides what the guest thought sickened them. They could experience salmonella symptoms and assume chicken or eggs, but in reality, a shipment of tomatoes that had been recalled after they were served could have been the culprit. It’s vital to get as much information as possible, not just ask what they assume caused their illness.
Incubation times can also be an indicator. Here are some common times for frequent illness offenders:
- E.coli: 1 – 10 days; most commonly 3 – 4
- Salmonella: 3 – 60 days; most frequently 7 – 10
- Norovirus: 12 – 24 hours
- Marine toxins: 1 minute – 48 hours
As you can see, many common culprits have very different incubation times, so if you work with the health department you should be able to determine if the illness actually came from your establishment, or if the guest consumed tainted product at home or elsewhere. This is just a partial list, but the CDC has compiled an extensive table exploring incubation times for many foodborne illnesses.
You should remember that as a certified food manager, you may not be able to diagnose the source of foodborne illness from your restaurant or elsewhere. If you have guests call, especially if it’s several with similar symptoms, we strongly urge you to contact your local health department for help with the situation. They’re there to help protect the public from illness and help foodservice operators keep their food safe.