Last updated: 02.10.23

The Facts about Food Poisoning

Food poisoning is an illness caused by consuming food that has been contaminated by bacteria. Although food poisoning is rarely life-threatening, in some cases it can lead to dangerous illnesses.

Customers who contract food poisoning after eating at a specific restaurant or cafe almost certainly won’t return, as it is a key indicator of bad food hygiene and may tarnish the establishment's reputation. Therefore, any staff members on site who handle the food and the business owners must recognise the risks of food poisoning and the symptoms that indicate someone may have contracted it.

In the summer, food poisoning can be attributed to bugs such as Campylobacter, Salmonella, Listeria and some E. coli. Virtual College supported the FSA research on seasonal cases of food poisoning, brought on by summertime activities like barbecues, with a ‘Safe Summer Food’ campaign that aimed to raise awareness around food hygiene and the different bugs that see a rise during summer.

In this article, we explain the main symptoms of food poisoning, some of the most common bacteria that cause it, and the best ways to prevent it in your place of work.

What are the Symptoms of Food Poisoning?

There are many instances where people mistake food poisoning symptoms for a common bug or unrelated illness, so it’s important to be aware of the Food Standards Agency’s (FSA) guidance.

Understanding the symptoms of food poisoning can help you understand the consequences of failing to prevent it, as well as making it easy to recognise when you or a colleague may have contracted it. Here are some of the key symptoms.

  • Feeling sick (nausea)
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea, sometimes containing blood or mucus
  • Stomach cramps and tummy pain
  • Lack of energy and weakness
  • Loss of appetite
  • High temperature
  • Aching

On average, food poisoning symptoms will develop within a week of eating the contaminated food. However, in some cases, it can take anywhere from a few hours to several weeks or even months to show up depending on the severity and type of contamination.

How Long Does Food Poisoning Last?

Unless symptoms become severe, the majority of people recover from food poisoning at home within one or two days without any specific treatment. Symptoms will often be severe for a short while, and then disappear relatively quickly, although some nausea may remain.

Regardless of how bad the symptoms are, the FSA recommends that you drink plenty of liquid to prevent any chance of dehydration, especially in the cases of the elderly or very young. If symptoms continue longer than two days, then it’s recommended that you contact your local GP for further guidance.

What are the Types of Food Poisoning?

There are different types of food poisoning to look out for, many of which also have different side effects and symptoms. Keep reading to learn more about these variations of poisoning so you know what to look out for when working with food. 


Campylobacter is the most common cause of food poisoning in the UK according to the FSA, and can cause symptoms such as severe abdominal pain, diarrhoea, headache and fever.

While it won’t be visible, food handlers must ensure poultry, meat, dairy products, unpasteurised milk and shellfish are safe to consume by sticking to food safety guidelines, as this is where Campylobacter is usually found. It can be spread by cross-contamination, contaminated water or infected animals and their food. This type of food poisoning can cause permanent disability.


Salmonella is one of the more well-known types of food bugs and is found in raw meat, undercooked poultry, eggs and unpasteurised milk.

Food handlers must be aware that this is usually spread by inadequate cooking as well as cross-contamination, highlighting just how important it is to keep cooking and kitchen areas as clean and safe as possible. Salmonella can make you ill for up to three weeks with symptoms such as diarrhoea, fever, vomiting and stomach pains.

E. coli

  1. coli can thrive in raw and undercooked meats similar to Salmonella. It can also spread through other contaminated foods like vegetables and salads, water or unpasteurised milk. Those working with food must also ensure they wash their hands regularly as E. coli can be passed on from person to person.

The FSA says that 50 per cent of those suffering from this type of food poisoning have bloody diarrhoea. Other symptoms include stomach cramps and vomiting, all of which can last for up to two weeks. When it comes to children with the illness, especially those under the age of four, it can cause haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS), which is a serious condition affecting the kidneys.


Listeria is one of the less common types of food-related illnesses, but should a person catch the illness they have more chance of being hospitalised. The risk of listeriosis increases for those aged over 65 years, very young children and newborn babies. For unborn babies and pregnant women, Listeria is especially dangerous, which means they should take care with soft cheese, smoked fish, meat pates and pre-packed sandwiches.

How to Prevent Food Poisoning 

There are several key measures that should be taken into consideration to help prevent food poisoning from occurring. Here are the different ways that you can reduce the risks involved when working with food.

Keep Hands and Surfaces Clean 

Before handling food it is important to make sure that your hands and surfaces are clean. This ensures that any germs that have been transferred to your hands or a work surface or removed before you start preparing food, which massively reduces the risk of cross contamination.

It is recommended that those working with food should keep their preparation area hygienic and can do this by cleaning before, during and after preparing or handling food. Countertops, utensils, hands, cutting boards and more should all be thoroughly cleaned whilst handling food. 

Keep Ingredients Separate

Food should be separated when they are being stored in the cupboard, fridge or freezer to ensure that there is no cross-contamination. Raw meat, chicken, seafood, poultry, eggs and ready-to-eat food poses the biggest food poisoning risk and should all be stored separately, as well as being kept away from other ingredients. This will help reduce spillages and contamination.

Guidance for how to store food in the fridge suggests that you keep high-risks foods towards the bottom of a fridge or freezer, so there is less risk that they will drip and contaminate any other products. You should also ensure that all ingredients are kept in sealed containers or packaging to reduce the risk of contamination further.

We also recommend using different cutting boards and utensils when handling different types of food. This helps to reduce the spread of potentially dangerous germs across different products.

Keep Ingredients Chilled

When storing food, you should ensure it is kept at the correct temperature. Meat, eggs and dairy products will all start to go off faster if they are not kept cold enough, which increased the risk of harmful bacteria developing,

Your refrigerator should be around 4°C or below to keep products fresh. Never place cooked food in a refrigerator unless it has been sitting for 1 to 2 hours and has completely cooled, as rushing this cooling process could cause harmful bacteria to grow.

Cook Meals Properly

One of the best ways to prevent food poisoning is to ensure that the meal is cooked at the right temperature and for the proper amount of time. A significant cause of food poisoning is undercooked meat, so when you’re serving food to customers it’s really important that all products are heated all the way through to the correct temperature.

You will often find cooking instructions on packaging and it is important to follow these. This will help kill any harmful bacteria and ensure that customers are safe to eat your products.


How long does food poisoning last? 

Food poisoning typically lasts about a week. However, this will depend on the severity of the case. It is important to seek medical advice if symptoms persist for longer than a week as this could indicate that the poisoning is more severe.

How do you treat food poisoning?

You can usually treat food poisoning at home, depending on how severe the symptoms are. Plenty of fluids are vital for treating food poisoning as this will help prevent dehydration. For sickness and diarrhoea, you can find more information on the NHS website to learn how to make this better yourself. 

If you’re still feeling unwell after treating yourself at home, or your symptoms persist for longer than a week, it is important to seek medical advice.

How long after eating does food poisoning happen?

The times vary for how long it takes to feel ill after eating contaminated food. In general, symptoms start within a day or so of consumption. However, it is also possible for food poisoning side effects to show after a few hours. 


When working with food, you must know the risks associated with contaminated food and always implement measures to prevent these dangers. We hope that after reading this article you now know a bit more about food poisoning, how to avoid it and what to look out for. 

If you’re looking for more advice on preventing cross contamination and its consequences, Virtual College's food hygiene courses can help deliver further information about handling food and avoiding the risks of food poisoning.