There has been a lot of coverage in the news lately about foodborne illness, but surprisingly, not much information has been shared about what these illnesses are. Foodborne illness is caused by eating contaminated foods or drinks. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), there are many different types of things that can contaminate food and cause disease, including bacteria, viruses, and poisonous chemicals. Data from the CDC show that the most commonly reported food borne illnesses are caused by bacteria known as salmonella, campylobacter, and E. coli, as well as a group of viruses called Norwalk or Norwalk-like viruses. However, it is hard to know how many real cases of these illnesses occur each year; because many of the symptoms are similar to other viruses and diseases, people often do not see their doctor.
How do we get these illnesses?
The bacteria that cause foodborne illness can appear anywhere, but they do have types of foods in which they are most commonly seen. Campylobacter is very common in undercooked chicken and other poultry because it is part of a healthy bird’s digestive system. Salmonella is also common in the digestive systems of many animals, but as we have seen recently with peanut butter, it can show up anywhere. E. coli is most commonly found in cow feces, and when trace amounts of feces end up in the meat or a drinking water source it can make its way to us. The Norwalk group of viruses is different because they can be spread from person to person through food. For example, if someone preparing a salad has the virus on their hands, the person eating the salad can easily contract the illness. This is why these types of foodborne illness are common and spread rapidly in communal living situations like dorms or nursing homes. There are other types of illnesses that can be foodborne, including hepatitis, staph infections (caused by staphylococcus bacteria), and shigella (caused by the bacterium shigella). However, these latter illnesses are much more commonly spread through other routes.
What are the symptoms?
Campylobacter, salmonella and E. coli illnesses are all caused by bacteria and have very similar symptoms. The most common of these symptoms are:
- Diarrhea, sometimes very severe and bloody
- Sever abdominal cramps
The Norwalk group of viruses primarily causes vomiting, sometimes with diarrhea. With these types of illnesses it is important to take in as much fluid as you can, because people often become dehydrated due to diarrhea and vomiting. Foodborne illness can only be diagnosed with tests like blood tests or stool exams, which detect whatever is causing the illness, so it’s important see your doctor if you have the following symptoms:
- High fever (above 101.5◦F)
- Blood in stool
- Vomiting which prevents intake of fluids
- Signs of dehydration: decrease in urination, dry mouth/throat, dizziness upon standing
- Diarrhea for more than 3 days
How do we prevent foodborne illness?
According to the Partnership for Food Safety Education, there are four basic steps to remember to prevent food borne illness:
- CLEAN: Wash your hands and surfaces (counter tops, stoves) often. It’s also important to wash all produce before consuming it.
- SEPARATE: Don’t cross-contaminate! Keep your meats and produce (vegetables and fruits) separate when preparing, and don’t put produce on a plate/surface where raw meat has been.
- COOK: Cook to proper temperature. All meats should be heated all the way through. For steaks, roasts, and fish, this means 145◦F. For all poultry, 165◦F. Eggs should be cooked where the yolk and white are not runny. Leftovers should be heated to 165◦F.
- CHILL: Refrigerate promptly. Keep your refrigerator at 40◦F or below and your freezer at 0◦F or below. Refrigerate meat, produce and other perishables (milk, eggs) as soon as possible. Don’t let food sit out for more than 1 hour. Defrost and marinate in your refrigerator.
Unfortunately, we cannot control foodborne illness in restaurants and other places outside our homes, but it is far less common for these illnesses to happen this way. Most cases occur in the home as a result of not cooking/reheating foods to their proper temperature or not washing produce. For more information and materials appropriate for all ages, check out www.fightbac.org, which is sponsored by the Partnership for Food Safety Education.
Do you need further information or have questions or comments about this article? Please call toll-free 1-877-530-1824. Or, for more information about the Maya Angelou Center for Health Equity, please visit our website: http://www.wakehealth.edu/MACHE.