The Staphylococcal Food Poisoning


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This figure shows a large thermometer with Fahrenheit and Celsius marks for freezer temperature, refrigerator temperature, safe holding temperature for cooked foods, and safe internal cooking temperatures for different meets and prepared meals. The figure identifies the danger zone between refrigerator temperature of 40 degrees Fahrenheit or 4 degree Celsius and the safe holding temperature of 140 degrees Fahrenheit or 60 degrees Celsius for cooked foods. It is within this danger zone that microbial growth presents a risk for foodborne diseases.
This figure indicates safe internal temperatures associated with the refrigeration, cooking, and reheating of different foods. Temperatures above refrigeration and below the minimum cooking temperature may allow for microbial growth, increasing the likelihood of foodborne disease. (credit: modification of work by USDA)

OpenStax Microbiology

Staphylococcal food poisoning is one form of food intoxication. When Staphylococcus aureus grows in food, it may produce enterotoxins that, when ingested, can cause symptoms such as nausea, diarrhea, cramping, and vomiting within one to six hours. In some severe cases, it may cause headache, dehydration, and changes in blood pressure and heart rate. Signs and symptoms resolve within 24 to 48 hours. S. aureus is often associated with a variety of raw or undercooked and cooked foods including meat (e.g., canned meat, ham, and sausages) and dairy products (e.g., cheeses, milk, and butter). It is also commonly found on hands and can be transmitted to prepared foods through poor hygiene, including poor handwashing and the use of contaminated food preparation surfaces, such as cutting boards. The greatest risk is for food left at a temperature below 60 °C (140 °F), which allows the bacteria to grow. Cooked foods should generally be reheated to at least 60 °C (140 °F) for safety and most raw meats should be cooked to even higher internal temperatures.

There are at least 21 Staphylococcal enterotoxins and Staphylococcal enterotoxin-like toxins that can cause food intoxication. The enterotoxins are proteins that are resistant to low pH, allowing them to pass through the stomach. They are heat stable and are not destroyed by boiling at 100 °C. Even though the bacterium itself may be killed, the enterotoxins alone can cause vomiting and diarrhea, although the mechanisms are not fully understood. At least some of the symptoms may be caused by the enterotoxin functioning as a superantigen and provoking a strong immune response by activating T cell proliferation.

The rapid onset of signs and symptoms helps to diagnose this foodborne illness. Because the bacterium does not need to be present for the toxin to cause symptoms, diagnosis is confirmed by identifying the toxin in a food sample or in biological specimens (feces or vomitus) from the patient. Serological techniques, including ELISA, can also be used to identify the toxin in food samples.

The condition generally resolves relatively quickly, within 24 hours, without treatment. In some cases, supportive treatment in a hospital may be needed.


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: