Safety tips that help you avoid foodborne illness
Don’t look now, but you could have uninvited guests at your kitchen table— bacteria, parasites, viruses and even traces of certain chemicals that have found their way into your family’s favorite meal.
Think it can’t happen in your home? Think again. Each year, 76 million of us come down with food poisoning. More than 300,000 people require hospitalization, and millions more wind up in emergency rooms or their doctors’ offices. And, unfortunately, 5,000 food-poisoning cases each year are fatal.
Food for thought
The sickness—known as foodborne illness—has four basic causes:
- bacteria, primarily Salmonella and staph germs that cause bacterial gastroenteritis (bowel and stomach illness)
- botulism, a rare but life-threatening bacterial toxin found in dirt (it can grow in home canned vegetables that aren’t cooked enough before being stored)
- viruses from food contaminated by human viral illnesses—these germs cause viral gastroenteritis, which strikes some 180,000 Americans each year
- chemical toxins from eating certain mushrooms, moldy peanuts or potato “eyes”—the greenish-white sprouts that bud on old potatoes
Though most cases wind down after a day or two, some may linger for several weeks and cause serious complications. Persons at high risk of complications include senior citizens, pregnant women, children ages 5 and younger and people who take antacids or have a weakened immune system.
Bacterial contamination is by far the most common cause of food poisoning.
Many different microbes ruin our food, especially these three:
- Salmonella. This germ passes from infected hens into their eggs. If tainted eggs aren’t completely cooked, food poisoning can occur from 12 to 72 hours after ingestion. The sickness usually lasts four to seven days and causes fever and diarrhea before resolving, usually without medication.
- Staphylococcus aureus. Staph erupts in unrefrigerated meat, milk, salads made with mayonnaise or cream-filled pastries. Symptoms— mild fever, cramps, nausea and diarrhea—appear within four to six hours. Recovery normally occurs within 48 to 72 hours as bodily fluids are replenished.
- E. coli. Notorious for contaminating ground beef, E. coli can also infest produce, water, nonpasteurized milk and cider. The tiniest dose of this intestinal bacteria can cause bloody diarrhea within nine days of exposure. The illness usually resolves on its own within 10 days, but your doctor should be alerted to its presence.
Good meals gone bad
Why does food spoil or become contaminated?
Experts say the three biggest reasons are:
- Improper storage. Bacteria breed when food, especially home-canned items, are stored at the wrong temperature or in a defective container.
- Undercooking. Germs can survive and cause illness when meat and fish aren’t heated thoroughly for enough time.
- Poor personal hygiene. Experts say dirty, germy hands and ill food handlers are the chief culprits.
These tips can help ensure that your food and water will stay healthy and safe:
At the supermarket:
- Be especially careful when buying fresh seafood, dairy products and eggs.
- Inspect deli salads carefully, especially those with mayonnaise.
- Examine what you’re buying. Check expiration dates. Look for tight, unbroken seals. Don’t buy dented or bulging canned goods.
- Make the supermarket your last stop. Food left in the car while you run other errands could spoil.
In the kitchen:
- Keep your refrigerator set at 40° F and your freezer set at 0° F.
- Immediately refrigerate perishables after shopping.
- Thaw or marinate meat in your refrigerator, not on your countertop.
- Keep meat and produce apart. Use one cutting board for meat and poultry and another for produce.
- Wash your hands before and after handling uncooked produce and meats.
- Wash produce under your tap as you need it, not all at once. Dry with a clean cloth or paper towel.
- Wash counters and utensils in hot sudsy water after meal preparation.
- Use a meat thermometer. Cook ground meats to 160° F, poultry to 165° F and steaks and roasts to at least 145° F.
- Only drink and use chlorinated or purified water. To purify water, bring it to a rolling boil for at least one minute.
Outdoor dining can cause foodborne illness.
Here are some safeguards for better barbecues:
- Wash your hands. Use disposable wipes if soap or hot water isn’t available.
- Keep meats away from all other foods.
- Keep raw food apart from cooked food.
- Cover your food. Insects can spread salmonella.
- Cook meat, poultry and fish completely.
- Keep hot food hot and eat it at once. Keep cold food cold. Return it to the ice chest after serving.
- Use the two-hour rule: Discard food that’s been left out longer (one hour in heat above 90° F).
- Another food rule: When in doubt, throw it out.
- Make sure food is served on clean plates and eaten with clean flatware.
How bad is it?
Most cases of foodborne illness are mild and nonthreatening. To overcome an episode, rest while slowly restoring fluids with water, decaf tea, sports drinks, ginger ale or cola. Try crackers, toast, rice, applesauce, gelatin or broth until the bout has passed. If symptoms get worse, however, get prompt medical attention. You could have a life-threatening condition like botulism, listeriosis (a dangerous blood disease from infected meat or dairy items) or critically low fluid levels.
- headache, stiff neck and fever
- difficulty swallowing or breathing
- blurry vision or drooping eyelids
- crying without tears
- fever lasting more than a day
- diarrhea lasting more than three days
- weakness, numbness or tingling in your limbs or mouth
- fainting, dizziness or rapid heart rate
- extreme stomach pain