In recent months, it seems as if the news is full of stories about foodborne illness outbreaks. When these large-scale occurrences happen, the public is told to completely avoid the contaminated products. These far-reaching cases of tainted food harming the public can be both frightening and confusing, leaving many people unsure of how to protect themselves and their families.
From poultry to produce, many of the affected foods are otherwise healthy foods that are a typical part of a balanced diet. While some cases of food poisoning are connected to a large-scale outbreak resulting from a problem in the food supply, other cases are from isolated incidents or stem from unknown sources. Many food recalls specify brand names or farms including geographic location to help narrow down the supply of affected food.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 48 million Americans are sickened by food poisoning each year while 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die because of the illness. Common symptoms of food poisoning include upset stomach, abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fever and dehydration. Symptoms can develop from 30 minutes to several days after eating infected food.
Although it is unappetizing to think about it, bacteria, viruses and parasites are the sources of most food poisoning. In fact, the CDC has identified eight known pathogens that lead to the majority of foodborne illness cases. Contamination of food can happen at various points from the farming and harvesting to the storing and preparation of foods, but incorrect food handling of food is one of the most common sources of contamination.
Of course, small amounts of bacteria in food is not harmful to most healthy adults. Serious issues arise when certain pathogens multiply and spread. This is particularly concerning for small children, elderly adults and people with lower immune systems including pregnant women. People can get foodborne illness at home and outside the home.
Keep in mind that contaminated foods often do not appear, taste or smell different than foods that are safe, so a sniff test will not keep you unaffected by food poisoning. Prevention of the spread of pathogens in food involves the safe handling of food including keeping foods at proper temperature.
Sources of potential contamination include raw and undercooked meat, seafood and eggs and items contaminated with these raw ingredients. Maintaining clean utensils and cutting boards as well as hand washing can help reduce the spread of bacteria. Spyce aprons, which are anti-bacterial and designed with food safety in mind, can be worn to kill bacteria and reduce cross-contamination in food service establishments and at home.
Here are some other home food safety tips:
- Wash fresh produce even if you are not eating the skins.
- Keep countertops and other work surfaces clean.
- Cook beef and pork to 145⁰ F and poultry to 165⁰ F.
- Don’t let leftovers sit out. Place leftover food in shallow containers in the refrigerator to cool down as soon as possible. Consuming food left out longer than two hours (and more than one hour in extreme heat) is a risk for getting sick.
- Keep your refrigerator at 40⁰ F.
- Check “use by” dates on foods to avoid consuming spoiled products.
- Put groceries away as soon as you return home from the supermarket.
- Unclean dish towels can spread germs. Be sure to wash them in hot water regularly.
The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health and the California Department of Public Health are helpful local resources for information on food recalls and foodborne illness.
LeeAnn Weintraub, a registered dietitian, provides nutrition counseling and consulting to individuals, families and businesses. Do you have a nutrition question that you’d like her to address in a future column? Send LeeAnn an email at RD@halfacup.com.