Just the other day, a friend and I were reminiscing about the good old days, when the most likely source of food poisoning was Aunt Sue’s potato salad that had been sitting for hours on a picnic table in the hot sun. Back in the day, we ate raw eggs, raw ground beef (Remember steak tartare?), and freshly picked fruits and veggies without any worries about getting sick.
Today, barely a week goes by without another recall of a food contaminated with potentially dangerous microbes. Millions of people have been sickened, and thousands have died from food poisoning. As a patient I’ll call Brian discovered, the sources of potential food poisoning now include just about everything we eat, from packaged and processed fare to several unexpected sources — even water!
Factory farming and international food trade make it easier for microbes to infect a food supply, transporting the bugs far and wide. On a ground-beef label, for example, you’ll probably find that the meat was sourced from three, four, five, or more different countries, and then combined before being sold to the public. Between the farm and the fork, multiple contamination possibilities exist, starting with the original facility that raised the cows, then on to the slaughterhouse, the meat packing site, the transporter, the distributor, and the supermarket. Every time the meat is handled or moved, there’s a risk of contamination. This is one reason that I like the local-food movement and farmers’ markets. With locally grown food, there are fewer opportunities for mishandling and contamination.
What Is Food Poisoning?
Food poisoning, also known as foodborne or waterborne illness, is the body’s negative response after ingesting contaminated food or water. The most common causes of contamination are harmful bacteria (not the beneficial bacteria that reside in our intestinal tract), a fungus, a virus, a parasite, or a toxin produced by one of these organisms.
Over 200 different organisms can cause food poisoning, the most common being Salmonella and E. coli (Escherichia coli). All these organisms are extremely stealthy. Generally, contaminated food looks and tastes just fine, so you have no way of knowing that it could make you sick.
Symptoms of food poisoning can include intense episodes of vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps, fatigue, fever, chills, dehydration, and vision disorders. These can occur a few hours after ingesting the tainted food or beverage, or up to weeks later, making it difficult to pin down exactly what was responsible.
Many times, when people in a group all eat the same food, the symptoms differ considerably. One person may have a bad evening, but be fine 24 hours later; another may have to be hospitalized, especially likely in the elderly, small children, pregnant women, and people with weakened immune systems or some chronic health conditions. This is why it pays to be cautious and implement a few simple rules.
How Can You Avoid Food Poisoning?
So how does the average person avoid the terrible discomforts (and potentially lethal dangers) of food poisoning? Improper preparation, cooking, and storing of foods in your home, a supermarket, or a restaurant cause the majority of food poisonings. A healthy adult can deal with small amounts of harmful bacteria without becoming ill. But we’re talking about bacteria that can multiply extremely quickly in the right conditions. All it takes is food (particularly protein), a little moisture, and the right temperature (anywhere between 40°F and 160°F); and in just a few hours, you’ll have enough harmful bacteria to make even the healthiest person ill. Here are some suggestions on how to avoid food poisoning:
- Before preparing food, wash your hands, the countertop, the cutting board, and the utensils (including pots or pans that have been stored in a cupboard without protection from insects or rodents). Rinse all leafy greens, even the packaged versions labeled “triple washed” or “ready to eat” (see my recipe for homemade fruit and vegetable cleaner below). Simply put them in a salad spinner, rinse them thoroughly, spin off the excess water, and blot them dry with paper towels.
- Rinse meat, chicken, or seafood after removing it from the packaging. Pat the meat dry with a paper towel, and throw the towel away. Do not reuse a paper towel that has touched raw meat.
- After you begin cooking the raw meat, wash your hands and then use only utensils to handle the meat. Don’t use the meat utensil for other purposes, such as checking whether potatoes are cooked or stirring another dish.
- Rinse rice, beans, and grains before cooking. Although these foods are seldom implicated in food poisoning, they often contain dust and other foreign substances from packing facilities. So err on the side of caution, and rinse them thoroughly.
- After chopping your fruit, veggies, or meat, wash the cutting board, countertop, and utensils in hot, soapy water, or spray the countertop with my homemade antibacterial cleaner. I suggest having one cutting board designated as “meat only” to further avoid contaminating other foods.
- Cook all meat thoroughly. Cooking times vary widely, so I suggest buying an easy-to-read meat thermometer.
- After each use, sanitize the sponges you use for cooking cleanup to prevent the spread of germs. Either wash the sponge in the dishwasher or soak it in my antibacterial solution for ten minutes or so to disinfect. Another option: Microwave the sponge for two minutes on full power to kill 99% of all germs. And don’t forget to launder kitchen towels after using them during food preparation.
Prevent cross-contamination at the supermarket.
- Place meat, chicken, or seafood into a plastic bag at the supermarket to capture any runaway liquids from the packaging.
- Wash your reusable shopping bags to prevent cross-contamination with other foods later.
- Make one bag “meat only,” so there’s no risk of spreading bugs to other foods.
Avoid unpasteurized milk and juice, along with raw sprouts.
Although these foods have some health benefits, they have sickened people in the past. Unless you’re completely sold on their safety or have a reliable source that you trust, I’d recommend staying clear.
Keep hot food hot, and cold food cold.
Who hasn’t come home from the supermarket and left hot or cold food sitting out while making the rest of the meal? Get in the habit of keeping cold food in the refrigerator and keeping hot food hot. A warm piece of meat (under 160°F) is an excellent breeding ground for bacteria. So keep that precooked chicken or other meat in a heated oven (over 160°F) while you prepare the rest of the meal.
Skip precut fruits and veggies.
Precut fruits and vegetables save time, but you’re far better off cutting them yourself. Oxidation begins when produce is cut, as when apples turn brown after cutting, which means lost nutrients. Not only are whole fruits and veggies more nutritious, but they’re also less likely to be contaminated by knives and other chopping equipment.
Refrigerate leftovers immediately.
Many people let hot leftovers cool on the counter before putting them in the refrigerator. This gives bacteria time to grow. Instead, refrigerate leftovers right away. One more caution: Before refrigerating, remove food (such as a casserole) from its cooking container, so it can cool off more quickly.
Be cautious when dining at restaurants.
Dining out is a bit like Russian roulette. You never know how the food was handled, prepared, or stored, so there’s always some element of risk. I recommend following common-sense suggestions: Order meat thoroughly cooked, send back any that isn’t, and be careful about dishes and desserts containing dairy products, like whipped cream.
Drink more tea.
New research shows that a compound in black tea has the ability to render certain toxins harmless and kill microorganisms. So having a cup of black tea with your meal may be a smart move.
Consider coriander oil.
An extract of the herb cilantro, coriander oil has proven antibacterial abilities that could reduce the likelihood of food poisoning. One recent study found that coriander oil wreaks havoc on bacteria, including E. coli, Salmonella, and the notoriously difficult MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus). Coriander oil is available at many health food stores.
Which Bacteria Causes Food Poisoning?
Many of the bacteria named below may be familiar to you since food poisoning has become so common. Be aware that symptoms may begin anywhere from 30 minutes to two monthsafter eating tainted food. Remember, too, that this is only a partial list of the more common causes of food poisoning. Viruses (including Norwalk and rotavirus) and parasites (such as cryptosporidium, giardia, and trichinosis) are other sources.
Bacteria, Common Sources, and Symptoms
- Common sources: Raw poultry, raw milk, feces-contaminated water
- Symptoms: Abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, fever, muscle pain
- Typical onset of symptoms: 2–5 days
- Common sources: Home-packed canned goods, improperly canned commercial food, honey, sausages, seafood
- Symptoms: Paralysis, usually starting with facial muscles first and moving down from there
- Typical onset of symptoms: 6–72 hours, or up to 10 days
Clostridium perfringens (the cafeteria germ)
- Common sources: Foods held at room temperature for long periods, including cooked meats, stews, gravies, beans
- Symptoms:Abdominal cramps, diarrhea
- Typical onset of symptoms: 8–12 hours
(E. coli) 0157:H7
- Common sources: Undercooked hamburger, unpasteurized milk, apple cider, lake water, alfalfa sprouts, hand contamination
- Symptoms: Vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps
- Typical onset of symptoms: 2–8 days
- Common sources: Ready-to-eat foods, including hot dogs, lunch meats, soft cheeses, unpasteurized milk, unwashed raw produce
- Symptoms: Flu-like symptoms
- Typical onset of symptoms: 9–48 hours, or up to 2 months
- Common sources: Undercooked foods, including eggs, poultry, dairy products, seafood
- Symptoms: Headache, fever, diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal cramps
- Typical onset of symptoms: 12–72 hours
Shigella (traveler’s diarrhea)
- Common sources: Poor hygiene of food handlers
- Symptoms: Diarrhea, sometimes with blood or mucus, fever, abdominal cramps
- Typical onset of symptoms: 24–48 hours
- Common sources: Unrefrigerated foods, including dairy products and mayonnaise-based salads (e.g., potato, macaroni, egg, and tuna)
- Symptoms: Diarrhea, vomiting, dizziness, possible weakness
- Typical onset of symptoms: 30 minutes–6 hours
- Common sources: Undercooked pork and contaminated water
- Symptoms: Vomiting, diarrhea, fever, aches, symptoms mimicking appendicitis
- Typical onset of symptoms: 4–7 days
If you develop food poisoning, don’t hesitate to get medical help if any of the following occurs:
- Blood in diarrhea or in vomit
- Exceptionally painful abdominal cramps
- Signs of dehydration, such as difficulty urinating, extreme thirst, dizziness, and weakness as well as repeated intense vomiting, even when taking in only water
- A temperature above 101.5°F
- Muscle weakness that moves from your face to lower parts of the body
- Difficulty with swallowing, speaking, or vision
In addition, I urge you to contact the local health department officials. Reporting your illness gives the health department important information it needs to prevent the illness from spreading, whether it was due to a restaurant meal or something from a supermarket. Either situation represents a public health threat. For the safety of others, authorities need to be informed.