How Do I Protect Myself Against Foodborne Illnesses?

It may be enough to never want to eat again. “Food poisoning” – that is, a sudden acute gastrointestinal assault that ravages and drains your body from a bacterium or a parasite clinging onto something you ate – isn’t uncommon.

Those of us who are health-minded are taught and primed to eat a diet from Mother Nature’s store (produce, meats, fish, poultry, seeds/nuts). It is ironic, therefore, that such health-giving foods can also give a TKO wallop on occasion.

Examples:  in late July, there were 641 cases in 11 states of a parasite infection linked to Fresh Express bagged salad mixes. The culprit is an intestinal one-celled parasite called Cyclospora. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Fresh produce is the culprit in many cases of Cyclospora infection.” This tiny terror causes diarrhea, which the Mayo Clinic describes as “explosive.” Yeah, no thanks.

But unfortunately, even packaged foods can carry evil-doing hitchhikers. According to the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, this month alone (August) saw notices for ready-to-eat sausage products that possibly had listeria contamination, and a line of meat and poultry foods containing onions that may have had possible Salmonella contamination, and taquitos and chimichangas with possible foreign matter contamination. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control estimates that approximately 48 million Americans get sick from a foodborne illness each year, and of those, about 128,000 need hospitalization, and of those, 3,000 die (as with COVID, vulnerable populations are those that can succumb to food pathogens). And there are about 250 identified diseases from food-clinging pathogens (bacteria, viruses and parasites, and to a lesser extent harmful toxins and chemicals from processing). 

Knowing the common food-borne pathogens and the symptoms they cause is beneficial for you and your family in case a bout occurs. Interestingly, same as probiotics, pathogenic bacteria are also classified into species and strains, with most strains in a species known to do the dirty work. 

Despite its name, salmonella doesn’t come from salmon, but often is attached to eggs (and shells), meat and milk (all raw), as well as many fruits and vegetables. These critters cause salmonellosis, an infection in the intestine that causes diarrhea and vomiting, abdominal pain, fever and headache. These symptoms are also the same for norovirus, which is not only food-borne but is virulently spread between people and on surfaces. It also causes inflammation of the stomach and intestines. 

Staphylococcus aureus is one of the main pathogens that causes intestinal infection and often is attached to cheese and other dairy products. Symptoms include vomiting and diarrhea.  According to one source, “a little concentration of 103 CFU/ml of S. aureus in cheese can produce enterotoxin A, thereby causing vomiting and diarrhea.”

Clostridium perfringes is a pathogen commonly occurring on raw meat and poultry as well as in gravy, and even some dried or pre-cooked foods, and can multiply rapidly. It causes diarrhea and cramping from enterotoxins it secretes and those symptoms typically lasts less than a day, but no fever or vomiting.

Campylobacter jejuni can be somewhat devastating – causing frequent diarrhea/watery stools (up to 10 times per day), and sometimes with blood, fever, nausea and vomiting, as well as headaches, malaise and muscle aches. Milk is often the culprit. Just this summer, in California there was a recall of raw milk that was contaminated with C. jejuni, and another recall in Oklahoma.

The genus Shigella is often the instigator of travelers’ diarrhea (called shigellosis) notably caused by the four main species S. flexneri, S. dysenteriae, S. sonnei, and S. boydii, each of which has varying levels of severity. According to the CDC, “Shigella of any species can cause severe illness among people with compromised immune systems. Shigellosis is characterized by watery, bloody, or mucoid diarrhea; fever, stomach cramps, and nausea.” 

A Latin binomial that makes most of us cringe is Escherichia coli (E. coli) and for good reason. It comes from fecal matter that still clings to the produce or meat. The FDA website says, “Contamination is typically spread when feces come into contact with food or water.  Human carriers can spread infections when food handlers do not use proper hand washing hygiene after using the restroom. Pets and petting zoos can also cause infections if the animals are contaminated with pathogenic E. coli.

Reducing Risk of Food-borne Illnesses

You can likely never prevent playing host occasionally to one of the bacterial villains listed above, but you can reduce your risk.

Just as with any other risk of ingesting pathogens (through eating, breathing) thorough handwashing before – and after -- you touch any food is advised. Additionally, prep your raw meats/poultry separately from vegetables. Use separate knives and instruments as well as separate cutting boards. This is imperative as any juice/blood from raw meat is ripe for bacterial contamination that can spread onto other surfaces. 

Learn your temperatures.  Different animal products cook to safe consumption levels at different temperatures. A meat thermometer is a tummy’s best friend here. steak, lamb and veal should be at a minimum of 145 degrees F, while seafood/shellfish should reach 145, and ground meat should be at a minimum of 160. Chicken and other poultry as well as fresh port and ham must be higher than that, at least 165. 

Prep produce properly. Fruits and vegetables – no matter their origins – cause approximately half of all food-borne illnesses. However, their benefits obscure the risk, so eat all you want. Follow some simple prep guidelines to reduce risk of any ill-intentioned hangers on that travel from the fruit or vegetables from the field through harvest and storage and into your fridge or onto your countertop. 

Organic? Needs to be washed. It may not have pesticides, but it can still have bacterial evildoers.  Dry with a clean paper towel after its soap-free bath. And even if you are going to peel the skin off the produce, still wash it as you can potentially transfer surface microbes to the interior edible part.

Take probiotics.  Probiotics – a wide variety of strains – are known to crowd out any pathogenic bacteria, reducing risk of them having a block party at your physical expense.

Conclusion

As the Italians proclaim “Mangia!” – meaning “eat hearty and enjoy!” By knowing what your potential food-borne pathogenic enemies are, where they like to hang out, and potentially how to reduce their numbers, you can go a long way to thwarting a “catgastrophy
 (gastrointestinal catastrophe).

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