What Constitutes a Food Poisoning Outbreak:

A singular instance of foodborne illness, unconnected to any others, is deemed “sporadic.” Sporadic cases make up the large majority of foodborne illnesses. However, such sporadic cases may often signify single occurrences of an undiscovered widespread outbreak. Instances of foodborne illness constitute and “outbreak” when two or more cases of illness occur during a short period of time, are caused by the same pathogen, and are connected to the same food service establishment or food product. One exception to the above rule exists: A single diagnosis of Botulism constitutes an “outbreak” for public health officials, due to the severity of the illness.

An example of a small or local outbreak may be the result of a contaminated dish served at a community pot luck, ingested by very few individuals. In such scenarios, treating each affected individual’s illness is likely to be the only action taken to address the outbreak. In a statewide or regional outbreak, a single batch of a contaminated food product sold and consumed in a given state or region may cause more widespread illness, and state and federal officials may become involved depending on the scope and severity of the outbreak. However, where the outbreak is nationwide, caused by a contaminated food product that is distributed throughout the country and ingested by hundreds or thousands of people in multiple states, the relevant federal agencies will most certainly be involved. When an outbreak is determined, public health officials of the relevant level (local, state or federal) conduct an investigation to determine the source, identify the pathogen that caused the illness, and warn the public of the danger to prevent more people from becoming sick from the same source.