- Symptoms of foodborne illness
- Prevention tips for keeping food safe
- Safe food storage
- Keep it clean
- Keep the temperature right
- How long will certain foods keep in the refrigerator or freezer?
It must be something I ate," is often the explanation
people give for a bout of home-grown "Montezuma's Revenge" (acute diarrhea) or some other unwelcome
Despite the fact that America's food supply is the safest in the world, the
unappetizing truth is that what we eat can very well be the vehicle for
foodborne illnesses that can cause a variety of unpleasant symptoms and may be
life-threatening to the less healthy among us. Seventy-six million cases of
foodborne illness occur in the United States every year.
The Food and Drug Administration has given high priority to combating
microbial contamination of the food supply. But the agency can't do the job
Consumers have a part to play, especially when it comes to following safe
food-handling practices in the home.
The prime causes of foodborne illness are bacteria,
viruses and parasites.
Bacteria causing foodborne illness include Escherichia coli O157:H7,
Campylobacter jejuni, Salmonella, Staphylococcus aureus, Listeria monocytogenes,
Clostridium botulinum, Clostridium perfringens, Vibrio parahaemolyticus, Vibrio
vulnificus, and Shigella. Viruses, such as hepatitis A virus and
noroviruses, can also cause foodborne illness. Parasites are another origin of
this type of illness and include Giardia lamblia, Cyclospora cayetanensis,
and Cryptosporidium parvum.
These organisms can become unwelcome guests at the
dinner table. They can be in a wide range of foods, including meat, milk and
other dairy products, spices, chocolate, seafood, and even water.
Specific foods that have been implicated in foodborne illnesses are
unpasteurized fruit and vegetable juices and ciders; raw or undercooked eggs or
foods containing undercooked eggs; chicken, tuna, potato and macaroni salads;
cream-filled pastries; and fresh produce.
Bacteria such as Listeria monocytogenes, Vibrio vulnificus, Vibrio
parahaemolyticus, and Salmonella have been found in raw seafood. Oysters,
clams, mussels, scallops, and cockles may be contaminated with hepatitis A virus.
Careless food handling sets the stage for the growth of
disease-causing "bugs." For example, hot or cold foods left standing too long at
room temperature provide an ideal climate for bacteria to grow. Improper cooking also
plays a role in foodborne illness.
Foods may be cross-contaminated when cutting boards and kitchen tools that
have been used to prepare a contaminated food, such as raw chicken, are not
cleaned before being used for another food, such as vegetables that will not be
Symptoms of fooborne illness
Common symptoms of foodborne illness include diarrhea,
vomiting, severe exhaustion, and sometimes blood or pus in the
stools. However, symptoms will vary according to the type of organism and the
amount of contaminants eaten.
In rare instances, symptoms may come on as early as a half hour after eating
the contaminated food, but they typically do not develop for several days or
weeks. Symptoms of viral or parasitic illnesses may not appear for several weeks
after exposure. Symptoms usually last only a day or two, but in some cases can
persist a week to 10 days. For most healthy people, foodborne illnesses are
neither long-lasting nor life-threatening. However, they can be severe in the
very young, the very old, and people with certain diseases and conditions.
These conditions include:
- liver disease,
either from excessive alcohol use, viral hepatitis, or other causes
- hemochromatosis, an iron disorder
- stomach problems, including previous stomach surgery
and low stomach acid (for example, from antacid use)
- immune disorders, including HIV infection
- long-term steroid use, as for asthma and arthritis.
When symptoms are severe, the victim should see a doctor or get emergency
help. This is especially important for those who are most vulnerable. For mild
cases of foodborne illness, the individual should drink plenty of liquids to
replace fluids lost through vomiting and diarrhea.
The idea that the food on the dinner table can make someone sick may be
disturbing, but there are many steps you can take to protect your families and
dinner guests. It's just a matter of following basic rules of food safety.
Prevention of foodborne illness starts with your trip to the supermarket.
- Pick up your packaged and canned foods first.
- Don't buy food in cans that are bulging or dented or
in jars that are cracked or have loose or bulging lids.
- Don't eat raw shellfish and use only pasteurized milk
and cheese and pasteurized or otherwise treated ciders and juices if you have
problem, especially one that may have impaired your immune system.
- Choose eggs that are refrigerated in the store.
Before putting them in your cart, open the carton and make sure that the eggs
are clean and none are cracked.
- Select frozen foods and perishables such as meat,
poultry or fish last. Always put these products in separate plastic bags so
that drippings don't contaminate other foods in your shopping cart.
- Don't buy frozen seafood if the packages are open,
torn or crushed on the edges. Avoid packages that are above the frost line in
the store's freezer. If the package cover is transparent, look for signs of
frost or ice crystals. This could mean that the fish has either been stored
for a long time or thawed and refrozen.
- Check for cleanliness at the meat or fish counter and
the salad bar. For instance, cooked shrimp lying on the same bed of ice as raw
fish could become contaminated.
- When shopping for shellfish, buy from markets that
get their supplies from state-approved sources; stay clear of vendors who sell
shellfish from roadside stands or the back of a truck. And if you're planning
to harvest your own shellfish, heed posted warnings about the safety of the
- Take an ice chest along to keep frozen and perishable foods cold if it
will take more than an hour to get your groceries home.
According to the USDA, there is no difference between a “portion” and a “serving.”
Keep Temperature Right
The second cardinal rule of safe home food preparation is: Keep hot foods hot
and cold foods cold.
- Use a digital or dial food thermometer to ensure that
meats are completely cooked. Insert the thermometer into the center of the
food and wait 30 seconds for accurate measurement. Beef, lamb, and veal should
be cooked to at least 145 F (63 C); pork and ground beef to 160 F (71 C);
whole poultry and thighs to 180 F (82 C); poultry breasts to 170 F (77 C); and
ground chicken or turkey to 165 F (74 C).
- Eggs should be cooked until the white and the yolk
are firm. Avoid foods containing raw eggs, such as homemade ice cream, mayonnaise, eggnog, cookie
dough and cake batter, because they carry a Salmonella risk. Their commercial counterparts
usually don't because they're made with pasteurized eggs. Cooking the
egg-containing product to an internal temperature of at least 160 F (71 C)
will kill the bacteria.
- Seafood should be thoroughly cooked to an internal temperature of at
least 145 F (63 C). Fish that's ground or flaked, such as a fish cake,
should be cooked to at least 155 F (68 C), and stuffed fish to at least 165
F (74 C).
If you don't have a food thermometer, look for other signs of doneness. For
- Fish is done when the thickest part becomes opaque
and the fish flakes easily when poked with a fork.
- Shrimp can be simmered three to five minutes or until
the shells turn red.
- Clams and mussels are steamed over boiling water
until the shells open (five to 10 minutes). Then boil three to five minutes
- Oysters should be sauteed, baked or boiled until plump, about five
Protect food from cross-contamination after cooking, and eat it promptly.
- Cooked foods should not be left standing on the table
or kitchen counter for more than two hours. Disease-causing bacteria grow in
temperatures between 40 and 140 F (4 and 60 C). Cooked foods that have been in
this temperature range for more than two hours should not be eaten.
- If a dish is to be served hot, get it from the stove
to the table as quickly as possible. Reheated foods should be brought to a
temperature of at least 165 F (74 C). Keep cold foods in the refrigerator or
on a bed of ice until serving. This rule is particularly important to remember
in the summer months.
- After the meal, leftovers should be refrigerated as
soon as possible. (Never mind that scintillating dinner table conversation!) Meats should be
cut in slices of three inches or less and all foods should be stored in
shallow containers to hasten cooling. Be sure to remove all the stuffing
from roast turkey or chicken and store it separately. Giblets should also be
stored separately. Leftovers should be used within three days.
And here are just a few more parting tips to keep your favorite dishes safe.
- Don't thaw meat and other frozen foods at room
temperature. Instead, move them from the freezer to the refrigerator for a day
or two; or defrost submerged in cold water. You can also defrost in the
microwave oven or during the cooking process. Cook foods immediately after
defrosting in the microwave or cold water.
- Never taste any food that looks or smells "off" or comes out of leaking,
bulging or severely damaged cans or jars with leaky lids.
Though all these dos and don'ts may seem overwhelming, remember, if you want
to stay healthy, when it comes to food safety, the old saying "rules are made to
be broken" does not apply!
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