The CDC estimates that each year roughly 1 in 6 Americans (48 million) get sick from food borne diseases. Of those people, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die. With the upcoming holiday it is a good time to think about proper food handling. We need to be especially vigilant when serving outdoors where it is more challenging to keep surfaces clean and food at proper temperatures.

Food poisoning, or food-borne illness, is caused by eating contaminated food. The most common offending organisms include bacteria, viruses, and parasites.

Food can be contaminated at any point by several means. Meat and poultry contamination occurs during processing if animal feces contact the meat surfaces. Home and commercial canned foods may be improperly canned. Produce and shellfish can be contaminated from soil or water. A food may not be fresh and already spoiling before preparation.

And everything depends on the cleanliness and health of the food handlers and how the foods are served. Meats, gravies, and salads may be perfect until serving when dishes are not kept hot or cold enough.

We’ve all experienced occasions when one or more of a group becomes ill from a food but others do not. Food-borne illness depends on the organism, the amount of exposure, and your age and present health. Infants and young children, older adults, pregnant women, and people with chronic diseases are more susceptible.

Symptoms of food poisoning include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal cramps. Symptoms can start soon after eating or days later. For example bad oysters may not make you ill for up to a week after consumption. Most often, symptoms improve on their own without treatment but they can last as long as ten days.

It’s time to call the doctor when you have a fever of more than 101.5, there is blood in the stools, weakness, diarrhea longer than 72 hours, difficulty speaking, or trouble standing.

If you are uncertain if food is contaminated or not, it is best to toss it. It isn’t worth the risk of becoming ill.

For more information go to mayoclinic.com or call the American Association of Poison Control Centers  1-800-222-1222.

©2013, Mary K. Doyle

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