What is a foodborne illness?
Quite often foodborne illnesses are inaccurately called food poisoning. A foodborne illness if a disease that comes from an infection or (less commonly) an actual toxin in something we eat or drink. There are more than 250 specific types of foodborne illness that have been described. This is not the same as a food allergy or food intolerance, in which a person reacts to a food that is tolerated by most other people. There are some plants that are inherently toxic, such as some types of mushrooms, or food that have been actually poisoned with an additive, accidentally or otherwise. There are illnesses that are caused by viruses, bacteria, and parasites that could wind up in the food or fluids that you and your family might eat today and then regret it tomorrow. Infectious organisms cause the vast majority of foodborne diseases, and because they usually do the most of their dirty work in the gastrointestinal tract, it is common for them to cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, sometimes so much so to an alarming or even life-threatening degree.
You have probably heard of and are acquainted with the severe illnesses such as cholera and typhoid fever. These diseases ravage many parts of the world, especially after a major disaster such as a flood or earthquake. Because we are lucky to have widespread standards of sanitation, waste disposal, and food preparation that allow us to eat just about anywhere-at restaurants or at our own kitchen table-without worrying about getting something that will give us a major intestinal upset. But yet, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that every year in the United States there are about 76 million cases of foodborne illness, that require 325,000 admissions to the hospital and cause about 5,000 deaths each year. It is really quite impossible to know for sure how many cases of foodborne infections occur every year because many consist of acute bouts of vomiting and diarrhea and the person recovers without seeking any medical treatment and so it is never diagnosed and never reported for statistical data. As you can imagine, the most serious problems tend to arise among the very young, the very old, and with those with compromised immunity.
The three primary ways that foods become contaminated are:
- Improper preparation
- Inadequate cooking
- Improper storage practices
The foods that seem to be the most likely to become contaminated by organisms, usually bacteria, are perishable, especially meat and other animal products, fresh fruits and fresh vegetables. Some of the specific ways that foodborne illness happens is because:
- Hands are not washed thoroughly before handling food
- Fruits and vegetables are not washed well enough
- Meats are not cooked long enough to destroy bacteria
- Stored foods are not kept cold enough
There are some real basic do’s and don’ts to reduce your risk at getting sick from foodborne illness:
- Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water before you handle or prepare food. This is especially important if you are handling meat, poultry, fish, shellfish, or eggs. If you go to the bathroom, play or handle your pet, or change a baby diaper when you are in middle of preparing food then it is extremely important to wash your hands again. You should wash for at least 60 seconds.
- Wash all utensils, cutting board, and any other surfaces with hot, soapy water after you have prepared any food. This again is especially important after preparing meat, poultry, fish, shellfish, dairy, or egg products. This will help prevent cross-contamination. Cross-contamination is when organisms from one food are accidentally transferred to another. You should also avoid using wooden cutting boards for meat as the pores in the wood can harbor dangerous bacteria.
- Keep all raw meats, poultry, fish, and shellfish out of contact with other foods. This will help prevent cross-contamination. Make sure that all animal products are bagged separately at the grocery store, and then keep them in sealed bags or containers so that the juices won’t drip onto other foods or surfaces. They should be prepared on separate cutting boards and placed on different places and should again be washed thoroughly.
- Wash raw fruits and vegetables in running water very thoroughly before eating them. Make sure that all produce that isn’t going to be cooked is washed very well. Once they are washed, don’t put them back in the packaging that they came in, as there could be bacteria in the packaging.
- Cook all meat, poultry, and eggs thoroughly. Because contaminated food can look and smell normal, experts recommend that the use of a food thermometer to help gauge when it is hot enough. Temperatures of 140 to 180 degrees F should be reached, depending on the food that is being cooked. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends the following “internal” temperatures be reached in order to kill potentially harmful bacteria:
- Beef, veal, and lamb: 145 degrees F for medium rare (which is the rarest you should allow yourself to eat), 160 degrees F for medium, and 170 degrees F for well-done. Fresh pork is the same expect it should never be eaten medium rare.
- Poultry: 180 degrees F for whole birds, legs, wings, and thigh; 170 degrees F for breasts.
- Ground meat: 160 degrees F for ground beef, pork, veal, and lamb; 165 degrees F for ground poultry.
- Ham: 160 degrees F if fresh, 140 degrees F if it has previously been cooked.
- Fish and shellfish: 145 degrees F for at least fifteen seconds
- Egg dishes: 160 degrees F, cook eggs until the yolks are firm.
- Casseroles, stews, and leftovers: 165 degrees F
- Perishables should never be stored at room temperature. Always store them in the refrigerator or freezer within about two hours of purchasing. Throw out leftovers after four days. Thaw frozen meat in the refrigerator or in the microwave and not at room temperature.
- Don’t drink water that you are unsure of especially water from lakes or streams, which can harbor the parasite Giardia lamblia, which can cause terrible diarrhea.
- Be careful about eating some of the following:
- Raw, rare or undercooked meat, poultry, fish or shellfish
- Unpasteurized milk or juices
- Raw sprouts
- Uncooked eggs or food that contain uncooked eggs
- Uncooked lunch meats or hot dogs
If you ever have doubts about the food products you have, throw them out and be safe.