“You are what you eat,” goes an old saying. Each year in the U.S., an estimated 8 million cases of food poisoning prove the wisdom of that saying.
Most of those suffering from food poisoning experience stomach cramps, vomiting, diarrhea, and fever for a few days before getting better on their own. They often come through the experience a few pounds lighter, but far wiser (at least concerning food safety) than they were before they got sick.
However, for some 3,000 Americans each year the consequences of food poisoning prove fatal. That’s the bad news. The good news is that almost all of the 8 million cases of food poisoning in the U.S. each year are preventable.
By learning safe food handling techniques, along with proper storage and cooking methods, you can all but eliminate the chances that you or your family will be included on the next list of food poisoning statistics.
If you’ve ever gotten a whiff of rotten meat, you’ll know first-hand the effects bacteria can have on food. Some strains of bacteria cause food spoilage (the rotten meat mentioned above), while others cause food poisoning. Strangely enough, the bacteria that cause food spoilage seldom are responsible for food poisoning, while at the same time most food poisoning bacteria do not cause food spoilage or alter the taste, smell, or appearance of most foods.
This means that foods that appear perfectly safe to eat in that there is no visible spoilage could still be highly contaminated by bacteria, which will cause food poisoning. You cannot tell if food is safe to eat simply by looking at it. Of the thousands of types of bacteria in our environment, only about 25 can cause food poisoning. Of these, about ½ dozen are responsible for almost all of the reported food poisoning cases in the U.S.
Salmonella – a known culprit
Perhaps the best known of the food poisoning bacteria is Salmonella. Salmonella bacteria come in about 2,000 different varieties, most of which can cause food poisoning. However, 70 percent of Salmonella food poisoning cases in the U.S are caused by only 10 varieties of Salmonella bacteria.
Salmonella bacteria are commonly present in the intestinal tracts and wastes of livestock, poultry, dogs, cats, rats, and other warm-blooded animals. Salmonella bacteria can also be found in some unlikely places.
For example, the small green pet turtles which many of us owned when we were young, were found to be the cause of Salmonella infections in children so frequently that their commercial distribution was halted by the Federal government in 1975.
Outbreaks of Salmonella poisonings have also been seen in marijuana smokers. The cause of these outbreaks is often traced back to the pot grower or seller, who will frequently add manure (which can contain Salmonella bacteria) to the pot in order to increase the weight of a shipment.
Food poisoning symptoms of Salmonella
Food poisoning caused by Salmonella usually results in flu-like symptoms such as diarrhea, stomach pains, chills, and fever. Generally, the first symptom is stomach pains which usually occurs 6 to 48 hours after eating Salmonella infected foods.
Most people get over the symptoms and feel better within three to five days. However, for the very young, the elderly, and people whose systems have been weakened by other diseases, Salmonella infection can be deadly.
While reported Salmonella cases in the US. number 1.2 million a year, including about 450 fatalities, experts believe that there are actually far from those numbers and that the death toll may be as high as 800 per year.
Staphylococcus aureus – the main culprit
The leading cause of food poisoning cases in the U.S. each year is the bacteria known as Staphylococcus aureus. This bacteria travels with us wherever we go. It is found on our hands, in our noses, and in dense concentration at the site of skin infections such as pimples.
Most “Staph” food poisoning cases result from food handlers passing the Staph bacteria to the food.
At temperatures of about 100 degrees F., Staph bacteria begin rapidly multiplying and producing toxins, which are what actually causes Staph food poisoning. Since the toxins are already present on the food when it is consumed, the food poisoning symptoms they produce generally occur quite soon after ingestion, usually within two to six hours.
Food poisoning symptoms of Staph
The symptoms of Staph food poisoning include severe vomiting, diarrhea, and cramps. They generally last for only a day or so before the patient recovers. Staph poisoning is frequently associated with starchy foods, cooked and cured meats, cheeses, custards, and other food products, which are often left to stand at room temperature for a few hours before they are eaten.
The cafeteria germ
The “cafeteria germ” is the name often given to the third leading cause of food poisoning. Scientifically known as Clostridium perfringens, this bacteria is found in soil, sewage, and the intestines of man and animals. Outbreaks of food poisoning caused by perfringens are seen frequently where food is left for long periods at warm temperatures — such as are normally found at cafeteria steam tables.
Food items such as cooked beef, turkey, gravy, dressings, stews, and casseroles are often implicated in cases of perfringens food poisoning.
Food poisoning symptoms of Clostridium perfrigens
Symptoms brought about by perfringens contamination include abdominal pains, nausea, and diarrhea. Vomiting is seldom seen in patients afflicted with perfringens food poisoning. Usually symptoms begin from 8 to 22 hours after eating contaminated food. They can last from 12 to 48 hours.
Most patients recover quickly from perfringens food poisoning, but some patients, such as those with ulcers, should see a doctor if there is a possibility of perfringens food poisoning.
A less well known but potentially severe problem is posed by a bacteria known as Listeria. This bacteria flourishes at refrigerator temperatures and is linked mainly to dairy products —milk, cheese, ice cream, etc. The number of reported cases of listens poisoning is under 2,000 per year, and of those, most people get only mild flu-like symptoms.
However, this bacteria can be deadly. It has been known to trigger meningitis, cause blood infections, and induce miscarriages. It was this bacteria which causes 28 deaths and 20 stillbirths in Los Angeles in 1985 when contaminated Jalisco brand cheese was marketed.
The deadly Clostridium botulinum
Perhaps the most deadly of the food poisoning bacteria is Clostridium botulinum, known commonly as botulism. Botulinum bacteria and spores (which are basically dormant bacteria) are found naturally in soil and water. Foods at particular risk for botulism contamination are canned vegetables (particularly if home canned), stews, meats, etc.
Since botulism spores from the soil could easily contaminate vegetables, and since botulism needs an environment with little or no air to flourish, canned products are ideally suited to its growth.
Food poisoning symptoms of botulism
Symptoms of botulism poisoning will usually appear 12 to 48 hours after eating contaminated food. Unlike the other food poisons, botulism attacks the nervous system. Initially, fatigue, headache and dizziness are the first symptoms to appear. These are followed by double vision, trouble swallowing, and difficulty breathing.
Death is usually caused by paralysis of the respiratory center; that is, the patient can no longer breathe on his own and dies of suffocation. There is an anti-toxin available that has saved lives of patients suffering botulism poisoning. Should you note the symptoms of botulism poisoning in yourself or anyone else, get to a hospital immediately.
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Avoiding botulism requires common sense use of canned goods. Any canned food, particularly home-canned that looks suspicious, should be discarded. This includes dented cans, swollen cans, jars with loose lids or cracks in them, etc. If the liquid in the can or jar is milky where it should be clear, do not use the product.
DO NOT TASTE even a tiny bit of food from any suspected product. Botulism is highly toxic, and even a tiny amount can be deadly.
Preventing Food Poisoning
The U.S. government, through the Department of Agriculture and its Food Safety and Inspection Service, seeks to assure U.S. consumers a safe and wholesome food supply. There are more than 10.000 meat and poultry packing and processing plants in the U.S.
At each one, federal inspectors check the safety and quality of the product during all phases of its processing. Over many years they have achieved an admirable record in maintaining the safety of our food supply. Once a food product reaches your home however it is up to you to ensure that it is handled in a safe manner and prepared properly.
Almost all of the food poisoning cases in the U.S. each year are caused in the home by improper handling of food during its preparation, cooking, or storage. Safe food handling and cooking techniques involve controlling the bacteria which cause food poisoning. This is done in two ways.
First, by regulating the temperatures at which food is cooked and stored and second, by preventing cross-contamination of one food to another through clean and careful food handling techniques.
In a previous article, I showed our readers how to understand the expiration dates for various food and how to handle them, to establish if the food is still edible.
Temperature effects on your food supply
Imagine a thermometer that reads from 0 to 250 degrees F. Starting at 0 and moving upward, let’s look at the effects of various temperatures on food poisoning bacteria.
Between 0 and 32 degrees F. some bacteria will survive, but none will grow. The closer to 0, the fewer bacteria that will survive.
At normal refrigerator temperatures of from 32 to 40 degrees, some spoilage bacteria (but none of the food poisoning varieties) will multiply, but at a very reduced rate.
From 40 to 60 degrees is where some food poisoning bacteria can begin to grow.
Sixty to 125 degrees is the danger zone. This is the temperature range where most problems occur. Food poisoning bacteria thrive in these temperatures, multiplying rapidly and producing toxins. Unfortunately for us, “room temperature” also falls within this “paradise” range for bacteria.
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Whether you allow cold food to warm up or hot food to cool down to this temperature range you are providing an ideal breeding ground for the bacteria which cause food poisoning. To avoid this never let food sit at room temperature for more than an hour or two.
Temperatures between 125 and 140 degrees F. will not kill most bacteria. Some of the more hardy types can even continue to grow at these temperatures.
Between 140 and 165 degrees, the growth of food poisoning bacteria is stopped. However, most of the bacteria will continue to live.
From 165 degrees to the boiling point of 212 degrees is where dangerous bacteria begin to be killed by temperature. At the higher end of this range, food poisoning bacteria die off rapidly.
The range of 212 to 250 degrees F. These temperatures are used in the home canning process to assure that all food poisoning bacteria have been killed. Canning instructions, whether for water bath or pressure canning, must be followed regarding time and temperature to assure safety in the home-canned food.
Should it be necessary to delay serving just-cooked food, that food should be held at temperatures of between 140 and 165 degrees, with the higher end of this temperature range preferred for safety.
Steps to avoid food poisoning
Practical steps to avoid food poisoning can also be taken at the other end of the temperature scale.
A good first step is to make sure that your refrigerator is keeping your food cold enough for safety. Refrigerators should maintain temperatures of between 32 to 40 degrees F. in the main compartment, and 0 degrees in the freezer.
Since bacteria multiply as the temperature rises it makes sense to do your food shopping as the last stop of the day so that the refrigerated foods can be gotten home as quickly as possible. In fact while food shopping try to pick up refrigerated products last so that they don’t have time to warm up in the shopping cart.
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When thawing frozen foods, the safest method is to transfer the food from the freezer to the main refrigerator compartment the night before you intend to use it.
After cooking, do not let food cool on the counter. Put the unused portions into the refrigerator as soon as possible. Also, when storing leftovers, divide them into small portions. Smaller portions will cool more quickly than will larger ones.
Also, to establish if the meat is edible when butchering domestic or wild animals, I recommend checking out this source.
Bacteria that cause food poisoning can remain alive and active in many areas of the kitchen other than the food from which they came. Towels and cloths used to wipe up spills, dry your hands, or perhaps cover food can harbor and spread food poisoning bacteria from one food to another.
A dish or bowl that was used to hold or mix uncooked meat or poultry should always be thoroughly washed before using it again, even if it is to be used to hold the same food once it is cooked. This will prevent the re-contamination of cooked food.
Kitchen implements such as knives, spoons, cutting boards, etc., can all harbor and spread food poisoning bacteria. They must all be thoroughly washed after each step in the food preparation process. A knife that was used to cut raw chicken and not thoroughly washed before it is used to cut the salad lettuce, for instance, could easily pass food poisoning bacteria from the chicken to the salad.
Many food safety experts suggest the use of a plastic or acrylic cutting board for cutting raw meat or poultry. Wooden cutting boards are porous, and they may allow bacteria to survive even a thorough washing.
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Cleanliness and frequent washing of all utensils and surfaces is the surest way to prevent cross-contamination. Wash all utensils and surfaces in hot soapy water between each step of food preparation. Wash your hands often while preparing food and of course both before you start and after you finish handling food.
Food safety experts are suggesting that people avoid eating uncooked or slightly cooked eggs or homemade dishes, which call for using non-cooked eggs. These would include items like eggnog, Caesar salad, hollandaise sauce, homemade mayonnaise, etc.
Health officials emphasize that cooked eggs are safe to eat — if they are thoroughly cooked. That means that eggs should be boiled for at least seven minutes, poached for at least five minutes, or fried ON BOTH SIDES for at least three minutes per side.
Common picnic and barbecue foods can also present special problems in safe handling. Raw chicken, hamburgers, hot dogs, and sandwich meats should ALWAYS be transported to the picnic area in a cooler containing plenty of ice or cold packs.
Hamburger should be cooked thoroughly until it is brown throughout. Rare burger lovers are tempting fate, according to food safety experts. Chicken should be cooked until all the juices running from it are completely white, and until there is no pink coloring left at the bone.
Mayonnaise is thought by many to be particularly prone to contamination by food poisoning bacteria. Actually, mayonnaise contains salt and lemon juice, both of which slow down bacterial growth. When mayonnaise is linked to cases of food poisoning it is usually because of what has been mixed in with the mayonnaise.
Products like chicken, shrimp, eggs, and other protein-rich foods usually bring contamination to the mayonnaise, not the other way around.
Following the guidelines listed in this article regarding food handling, preparation, and storage should help to ensure that the food you eat will not make you sick. Although these recommendations should be common sense by now, few people actually understand that food poisoning can become a real problem.
Many believe that today, there are drugs for “everything” and they do not pay attention to what is listed above. This may be true when there is professional medical help waiting for you to test their skills, but what will you do when you are all alone?
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