It has become a fact of life that recalls happen. Staph, Botulism, Salmonella, E. coli…these are pretty scary things. We’ve had recalls on eggs, deli meats, ground beef, hummus; the list goes on. Who knew there are more than 40 diseases that humans can get from eating contaminated foods. According to the USDA, there are more than 76 million cases of foodborne illness occur each year in the U.S.
We rely on the CDC, FDA and the USDA to keep us healthy, but let’s face it. Things slip through their fingers (things like 380,000 pounds of listeria contaminated beef sold to Walmart, 380 MILLION eggs and the infamous HVP recall).
Now that we’ve scared the bejesus out of you, take a deep breath, make yourself a nice cup of chamomile tea and read up. We’ve broken down the major causes and checked out the best tips for keeping you and your family safe. With these basic tips and keeping track of current recalls all should be fine.
First, what causes food borne illness? The most common danger is microorganisms. Basically little itty bitty buggies (bacteria, fungi, parasites and viruses). How do these guys differ? Here goes:
The biggest cause of food borne illness. While not all bacteria is bad (thanks to bacteria we have cheese) other bacteria classified as pathogenic can be quite dangerous to humans. These little guys cause illness in various ways:
- Infection: When certain bacteria are eaten, it can survive in the intestines. This bacteria makes you ill but can be killed by cooking foods to 165 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.
- Intoxication: Some bacteria create toxins. It is not the bacteria, but the toxin they produce that makes us ill. Problem is that even if you cook the bacteria out of the food, the toxins remain.
- Toxin Mediated Infection: This is like a mix of the first two. The bacteria is eaten, it makes a home in the intestines and then creates toxins. This type can be super dangerous to children, pregnant women, the elderly and people with immune diseases.
Different Types of Bacterial Illness
Botulism: There are about 149 cases of Botulism reported to the CDC every year. These are caused by the Clostridium botulinum bacteria. It likes cooked foods that are left in warm areas for a long time in areas with little oxygen (why it happens often with canned foods). People who are affected usually start feeling ill between 8 – 36 hours after consumption. Symptoms include “double vision, blurred vision, drooping eyelids, slurred speech, difficulty swallowing, dry mouth, and muscle weakness”. Children affected with botulism will be lethargic, lose their appetite, become constipated, have a weak cry and poor muscle tone which can eventually lead to paralysis. If you have any bulging cans, discard them. If you can foods at home, take proper precautions, specially with foods that have low acid content (asparagus, green beans, beets and corn). If you eat home canned foods, make sure that they are boiled for 10 minutes to kill any of this bacteria. If you have ever heard that babies should not be given honey, botulism is the reason why. After 1 year old honey is ok to ingest.
E. coli: Most E. coli bacteria is harmless. Others are not and can cause some pretty nasty things in humans. They are “Shiga toxin-producing” E. coli (STEC). The most common in food borne illness is E. coli O157:H7 (E. coli O157 or “O157”). There are other kinds of E. coli bacteria called serogroups that cause disease (called non-O157 STEC). Of these O26, O111, and O103 most commonly cause illness in the United States. The non-O157 serogroup usually causes less sever illness than E. coli O157; but some non-O157 STEC serogroups cause the worst manifestations of STEC illness specially in children and the elderly. The symptoms include stomach cramps, diarrhea, vomiting and sometimes a low fever. Most people get better within 5″7 days but in some people it can be deadly. Some people affected by Botulism can get hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). People with HUS will go to the bathroom less, feel tired, and become pale. It is very important that these people go to the hospital because HUS can cause kidney failure which can result in death. These are some recommendations from the CDC on prevention:
- WASH YOUR HANDS thoroughly after using the bathroom or changing diapers and before preparing or eating food.
- WASH YOUR HANDS after contact with animals or their environments (at farms, petting zoos, fairs, even your own backyard).
- COOK meats thoroughly. Ground beef and meat that has been needle-tenderized should be cooked to a temperature of at least 160°F/70ËC. It’s best to use a thermometer, as color is not a very reliable indicator of “doneness”
- AVOID raw milk, unpasteurized dairy products, and unpasteurized juices (like fresh apple cider).
- AVOID swallowing water when swimming or playing in lakes, ponds, streams, swimming pools, and backyard “kiddie”pools.
- PREVENT cross contamination in food preparation areas by thoroughly washing hands, counters, cutting boards, and utensils after they touch raw meat.
Listeria: Found in milk products, raw vegetables, poultry, meat, seafood and deli meats. Symptoms include fever, muscle aches, nausea or diarrhea. If it spreads to the nervous system, headache, stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance, or convulsions can occur. In pregnant woman, serious cases can lead to miscarriage or stillbirth, premature delivery, or infection of the newborn. It’s pretty easy to prevent this one. Don’t drink raw milk and cheese from unpasteurized milk and keep your storage areas clean, cook your foods at the right temperature, keep your vegetables and meats separate, wash everything that touches uncooked food immediately and eat perishables asap. People with weak immune systems, children and women who are pregnant need to take different precautions: No hot dogs, no deli meats, no soft cheeses, no pates, no meat spreads and no smoked seafood.
Perfringens: (A.K.A CP) Reheated sauces, meats, beans, stews and casseroles are the main conductors here. . Symptoms include stomach cramps and diarrhea and sometimes vomiting and fever and usually lasts just 24 hours. Sometimes, it can be fatal. Prevent illness by keeping cooked foods at 135F or higher (that’s internal temperature) and reheating leftovers to an internal temperature of 165F.
Salmonella: One of the most popular this year. Salmonella is found in poultry, eggs, milk, meats (and yes feces). Symptoms of salmonella include fever, abdominal cramps and diarrhea that starts 12 to 72 hours after ingesting the contaminated material. It usually lasts 4 to 7 days. Sometimes it can be more serious and require a hospital visit. The elderly, infants and those with impaired immune systems are at more risk since it can spread from the intestines to the blood stream and can cause death. For them early treatment with antibiotics is very important. Here are some tips on prevention:
- Eggs, poultry and meat: Do not eat raw or undercooked eggs, poultry, or meat. If you go to a restaurant seving items such as Hollandaise sauce, Caesar and other homemade salad dressings, tiramisu, homemade ice cream, homemade mayonnaise, cookie dough, and frostings ask them if there are raw eggs in them. Cook poultry and meat, including hamburgers well. Make sure it is not pink in the middle.
- Dairy: Do not consume raw or unpasteurized milk or other dairy products.
- Produce: Thoroughly wash your fruits and vegetables.
- Cross-contamination: Keep uncooked meats separate from produce, cooked foods and ready-to-eat foods.
- Washing: Wash hands, cutting boards, counters, knives and anything that has touched uncooked foods. Hand should be washed before, during and after handling each food item. Hands should be washed after touching any animal, specially reptiles, chickens and ducks.
KEEPING THINGS SAFE
These are a few more things you can do to prevent bacterial contamination:
Food temperature: Bacteria love warm weather, they get spring fever and start multiplying at temperatures between 70 F and 125 F. Keeping your food out of this range of temperatures will significantly decrease your danger of contamination. The inside temperature of your foodstuff should be EITHER above 135 F OR below 41 F.
- Hot food should stay hot: Basically, foods that have been cooked with heat usually kill most of the bacteria. Problem is reheating. When you re-heat these, you should quickly bring their internal temperature to 165F. This kills any bacteria that may have grown while it was sitting in the fridge.
- Cold foods should stay cold: Food that is semisolid should be refrigerated at 41F in shallow containers. The deeper the container, the longer it takes for the food to reach the proper temperature. Also, when storing in the fridge, do not over pack it. This constricts air flow and slows down cooling time. And make sure to store your raw materials below the cooked ones so that you can reduce the risk of contamination.
Time: It is good to work quickly in the kitchen. Bacteria lives, and when it is moved from one location to another it needs time to adjust to the new conditions. During this adjustment period (called lag phase) bacteria barely grows. The lag phase lasts 1-4 hours. Past 4 hours we enter the log phase during which bacteria spreads quickly. So basically, do not let food sit out for more than 4 hours. Working quickly is working safer.
These little buggers need a host in order to survive, that host would be you, me, a cow, a fish, etc. Parasites are ingested by the host and they make a home (usually in the intestinal tract or in muscle tissue). Once there the parasites grab a margarita, mate and can wreak havoc on their host. These are the three that we need to worry about the most:
Trichinosis: This one has become quite rare, but can be a nasty little guy. Two days after eating undercooked meat (pork and game) that is infected with the trichina larvae we can end up with a nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, fatigue, fever, and abdominal pain. Later, headaches, fevers, chills, cough, eye swelling, aching joints and muscle pains, itchy skin, diarrhea, or constipation follow the first symptoms. In serious infections, people could have coordination problems which include heart and breathing problems. These can lead to death. How can you prevent contamination?
- Cook meat until the juices run clear (check internal temperature to make sure it is at 170F).
- Storing pork: cut it to less than 6 inches thick and freeze it to 5F (no more than 20 days).
- Game (bear, pork, wild feline (such as a cougar), fox, dog, wolf, horse, seal or walrus): Cook it thoroughly.
- If you grind your own meat, make sure to clean them thoroughly before and after each use.
Anisakiasis: These roundworms live inside fish, specially bottom feeders. Symptoms are violent abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting. In more serious cases, the disease has symptoms similar to Chron’s disease. To reduce the risk of illness, the fish should be cleaned immediately after being caught. Cook your fish so that internal temperature reaches 135F. The larvae of these roundworms survive acid marinades, so they can easily contaminate your ceviche.
Considered to be the smallest life forms, they invade cells and instruct them to create more of the same virus. They can live outside a host on food, even the smallest little bit of meat left on that gorgeous wood cutting board. Viruses (unlike bacteria) are not bothered by water activity, pH or oxygen levels. Best thing to do is prevent contamination.
Hepatitis A: These hop aboard shellfish which are ingested by us.We can have the virus and not know it…and then pass it onto others. Three words – WASH YOUR HANDS!
Novovirus:Again – WASH YOUR HANDS! This virus is commonly spread by dirty food handlers who do not wash their hands. It is found in fecal matter (human and animal) and manure. Cooking at high temperatures can kill the virus.
NOT SO FUN-GI
These plants are all around you, even if you do not see them. They include mushrooms, molds and yeast. When talking disease, molds are the ones you need to really worry about.
Mold: Molds form filaments (like little hairs) so they look a bit like cotton on food. The majority of mold won’t harm you but some can be very dangerous (cotoxicoses). Mold can grow on most food surfaces at most temperatures in almost any condition. To kill a mold, you must submit it to 135F for 10 minutes, but their toxins are left behind. Don’t bother trying to save that piece of fruit. Just throw it out and grab a new one and make sure to sanitize the container it was in.
So what can you do to reduce the risk of food borne illness. We got some handy tips from the USDA:
- Wash hands and surfaces often. Wash them before and after touching food, using the bathroom, changing a diaper, being around sick people, and handling animals. Use disposable gloves if you have any cuts on your hands.
- Use paper towels instead of washcloths. Wash anything that comes in contact with raw meats, fish and eggs immediately after use.
- Clean your thermometer after each use.
- Don’t cross contaminate. Use plastic or glass cutting boards and have one for each different type of meat (and one for veggies), sanitize them with bleach solution and discard them when they have too many knife grooves.
- Do not use prep plates to server the finished product.
Cook: Cook to proper temperatures.
- Veal, beef, lamb, steak, roasts to 145F
- Fish to 145F
- Pork to 160F
- Ground Beef, veal and lamb to 160F
- Egg dishes to 160F
- Poultry to 165F
- Refrigerate promptly. Your refrigerator should be at 40F or below. If there is an outage and the temperature is below 40F for 2 hours, throw out your food.
- Hot foods: Put them directly in the refrigerator or cool them down in an ice bath prior to refrigerating. Large vats of hot food (like a large soup) should be divided into smaller containers since larger containers make cooling time longer
- Raw meats should be stored in their own separate containers (disposable plastic bags work wonders) and placed on the bottom of the fridge to prevent cross contamination of cooked foods.
- Eggs: Do not store your eggs on the fridge door, this can cause changes in temperature that causes bacteria.
- Clean your fridge. Go through your fridge and discard old food items once a week. Cooked leftovers should be thrown out in 4 days, raw meats in 2. Check this link for more specific info on when to discard what.