Think about that. 76 million of us get sick from food that’s supposed to be safe. And according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), over 350,000 of those illnesses are serious enough to require hospitalization. Of those, 5,000 people end up dying.
Those are some shockingly high statistics from one of the most developed countries in the world.
If you’ve paid any attention to the news over the past few years, then you know that the instances of foodborne illness and contamination seem to be on the rise. More than 200 known diseases are transmitted through food, and more are being identified all the time.
In fact, if you check the FDA’s site right now, there are 19 recalls. Just for the month of October, the following are on the list: canteloupe, bread, smoked fish, milk, and alfalfa sprouts. Yeah, it’s scary.
Even scarier? Check out this recall, posted October 20, on the USDA site: “Klement Sausage Company is recalling approximately 2,740 pounds of beef stick products that may contain hard plastic and/or pieces of glass.”
That’s pretty scary stuff! Even worse, the resulting illnesses can lead to major health expenses as well.
Knowing how to prevent food-borne illness is vital in today’s society simply because the FDA and USDA can’t catch everything. Companies sure aren’t catching everything. So, our health and safety is largely up to us.
The Big 3
So, what do we need to be on the lookout for? Again, there are over 200 different pathogens and diseases that can be passed through food. But here are three of the most common:
1. Salmonella - Salmonella is a bacteria that lives in the intestines of birds, reptiles, and mammals. It can be spread through any food that is of animal origin. This includes seafood, milk, and eggs. It can even be spread through improper handling of food in factories. Symptoms include cramping, diarrhea, and fever. In people suffering from a weakened immune system or general poor health, salmonella poisoning can be life threatening.
2. Campylobacter - Campylobacter is another bacteria that lives in the intestines of birds. Any piece of raw chicken contains Campylobacter. Symptoms include cramping, diarrhea, and fever. And, the CDC says that Campylobacter is the most frequent cause of diarrheal illness in the world. Eating undercooked chicken, or cross-contaminating foods (like infected chicken juices touching or mixing with something else) is the most common cause.
3. E. coli - E. coli is a bacterial pathogen that lives in cattle and other large animals. People usually get sick from E. coli when microscopic amounts of cow feces contaminate food or water. You can get E. coli from water, milk, beef, or even apple juice, fruits, and vegetables. Symptoms include severe and bloody diarrhea and painful cramping, but little fever. The CDC states that in 3%-5% of E. coli cases, a very serious condition known as hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) can occur weeks after the first round of symptoms, especially in young children. Symptoms from HUS are anemia, profuse bleeding, and kidney failure.
Okay, now that I’ve freaked us ALL out, let’s focus on something positive. The good news here is that we can lower our risk of food borne illness. Notice I didn’t say “eliminate”? Yeah, that’s because unless we grow our own food, slaughter our own animals, and carefully cook 100% of our food from scratch, we can’t catch everything.
1. Wash Your Hands
Keeping your hands clean during food prep is one of the easiest ways to prevent cross contamination. If you touch raw meat, wash your hands in hot soapy water before you touch anything else. If you scratch your face, wash your hands (you can spread a staph infection by scratching a pimple and then touching food).
Wash your hands!
2. Wash Your Food
It’s amazing how many people don’t wash produce before chopping and preparing it.
Don’t quickly run that squash under a dribble of water. That’s only going to get it wet, which won’t do any good. Wash fruits and vegetables with soap and water. Remove the outer leaves of lettuce and cabbage, and then wash the rest of the head.
Bacteria can reproduce rapidly on food. Chill leftovers within two hours of cooking (1 hour if the temperature in the room is above 90 degrees). All food in the refrigerator should be kept below 40 degrees.
All meats should be cooked thoroughly and to the correct temperature. Don’t have a meat thermometer? Go get one. Fish, beef, chicken, turkey…they all have different cooking temperatures. Use this handy list to learn more about safe cooking temperatures.
Cut beef on one chopping board, chicken on another, veggies on another. Sounds like a pain, but separation is really important for preventing cross contamination. Use color coded boards to help you remember (red for beef, brown for chicken, green for veggies, etc.) It’s also important to watch your use of knives, bowls, and other utensils. Knives that cut up infected chicken and are then used to cut beef will spread the contamination. Bowls that held raw food and then held cooked food will spread contamination. Separate everything!
6. Defrost Properly
With the holidays coming up, many people will be cooking turkeys, seafood, beef, and chicken. Plan ahead so you can defrost meat in the refrigerator (instead of on the counter at a faster rate). This is safer. Bacteria can double in number every fifteen minutes under ideal conditions. And, room temperature is considered an “ideal condition.”
7. Don’t Buy Damaged Cans
Even canned foods can carry diseases. Don’t buy or eat food from any cans that are dented, frothing, or bulging. Canned goods can get contaminated with botulism, which can cause serious illness and death. Don’t even taste food from these cans. Yeah, it’s that risky.
8. Watch Your Newborn
Infants are at considerable risk of Salmonella poisoning. Bottles of breast milk, formula, or juice that are left out for too long can become infected. Refrigerate bottles immediately when your baby is done feeding.
9. Eat Less Meat
You can cut your risk of food borne illness dramatically simply by eating less meat, or becoming a vegetarian. Yes, you can still get sick from fruits and veggies, but a much higher percentage of illness comes from animal products.
- Food Safety and Inspection Service (through the USDA) – The FSIS issues recalls for meat, poultry, and processed egg products. You can sign up to get email alerts, or have alerts sent to your mobile phone.
- FDA – The FDA issues alerts for pretty much everything else, including medicine. Again, you can sign up to get alerts as they’re issued.
- National Database of Food Poisoning – If you’ve gotten sick with food poisoning, report it to this database.
(Photo credit: Masahiro Ihara)