Food or Foe: What You Should Know About Foodborne Illness

By Joseph Gallegos

Bacteria are microorganisms that are found virtually everywhere. They live within us, they are found in soil, in our homes, on our bodies, and in our food. Many bacteria are harmless and some can even be beneficial. However, there are some forms of bacteria which can cause us to become very ill. These are labeled pathogenic. While Pathogenic bacteria are a leading cause of food poisoning they are not the only organisms responsible for food related illness. Viruses and parasitic microorganisms can find their way into our food and make us sick. Foodborne illness is incredibly common in the United States. The United States CenVters for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that around 76 million people contract a food borne illness each year. Food borne illness can range from mild to severe and it causes approximately 5000 deaths every year.

Foodborne illnesses are most commonly derived from three forms of bacteria. These Campylobacter jejuniinclude, Campylobacter jejuni, Escherichia coli O157:H7, and Salmonella enterica
. Campylobacter inhabits the intestinal tracts of poultry and is most commonly found on raw poultry such as chicken and turkey. Campylobacteriosis is an illness that is derived from Campylobacter. The symptoms of campylobacteriosis include; muscle pain, abdominal pain, nausea, and diarrhea. Campylobacteriosis is most commonly contracted by the consumption of improperly cooked chicken and foods that have been contaminated with raw poultry juice.

There are many forms of Escherichia coli that can cause disease in humans. However, E. coli O157:H7Escherichia coli O157:H7 is the strain that causes foodborne illness. E. coli O157:H7 infection can be very severe. E. coli O157:H7 produce a toxin called shiga toxin which can cause hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). Hemolytic uremic syndrome is a very serious illness which can lead to renal failure or death. Children are especially at risk if they become infected. Additional symptoms of infection include; bloody diarrhea, vomiting, severe stomach cramps, and mild fever.
Although infection with E. coli O157:H7 can be very serious it is relatively rare. Most infected individuals recover within 5 to 7 days. E. coli O157:H7 illness is most commonly attributed to the consumption of undercooked beef, contaminated produce, and unpasteurized juices.

According to the CDC there are over 2,300 types of Salmonella and many of them are pathogenic. Salmonella lives inside the intestines of humans, birds, reptiles and other Salmonella entericamammals. The CDC estimates that Salmonellosis is responsible for approximately 40,000 infections every year. The symptoms of Salmonellosis include; diarrhea, fever, headache and muscle ache. However, it can cause severe infection in children, and individuals who are elderly or immunocompromised (for example, an AIDS patient). Salmonella infection generally occurs when food contaminated with animal feces is ingested. The most common sources of infection are undercooked or raw eggs, poultry, meat, and contaminated fruits and vegetables.

If we are careful, and take the right precautions, foodborne illness is entirely preventable. One of the most practical ways to avoid contamination is hand washing. Proper hand washing technique should always include soap and warm water, and should take place for at least 20 seconds. This should always occur before meals and food preparation, especially when raw poultry, meat, fish, or eggs have been handled. Raw meat should always be Food contaminationprepared separately from other foods as to avoid contamination. Designating one cutting board for raw meat and another for vegetables will increase your chances for safe food handling. Additionally, it is recommended to always use a meat thermometer during cooking to ensure that food reaches a safe temperature. For example, poultry breasts should always be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 ˚F, while ground beef should be cooked to 160 ˚F. Adhering to these temperatures is very important because bacteria can grow rapidly and survive between 40 ˚F and 140 ˚F. The USDA refers to this as the “danger zone”. To avoid falling into the “danger zone” make sure not only to cook food properly, but to refrigerate perishable foods within 2 hours of purchase or use. Consume raw eggs or products that contain raw eggs like hollandaise sauce at your own risk. These are just a few of the measures you can take to protect yourself from food illness. The USDA has a wonderful manual titled “The Kitchen Companion” that can be found here.

While practicing safe food handling technique will drastically reduce your chances of food poisoning it will not completely prevent it. If you get sick, always make sure to consult your health care provider. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that you consult your health care provider if you haveany of the following symptoms: a fever over 101.5 ˚ F, bloody stools, extensive vomiting, signs of dehydration, or diarrheal illness for more than 3 days. If you believe you contracted the illness from a restaurant or a commercial product contact the local health department immediately. Doing so will help others avoid sickness and help to prevent a potential outbreak.

Foodborne illness is serious and has the potential to cause severe illness. However, it is preventable and should not keep us from enjoying the foods we love. The most important thing you can do is to educate yourself on the proper way to prepare and store food. There are amazing websites that offer an abundance of information on food safety. These websites are maintained by a variety of organizations that work to educate the public and prevent foodborne illness. I’ve listed a few useful websites below that can be accessed for more food safety information.

Check out these websites for more useful information on foodborne illness.


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