A quesy tummy may indicate overindulgence but it might also mean a foodborne illness. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, 76 million Americans suffer such an illness each year. About 350,000 of these are hospitalized and 5,000 die. Foodborne illnesses, often called “food poisoning”, can be serious and include such variants as salmonella, listeria, and staphylococococcus. All are caused by bacteria which often multiply when food is not handled in a safe manner. Those most at risk for foodborne illnesses include senior citizens, children under the age of ten, pregnant women, and those with a weak immune system (HIV patients, transplant patients, or those recovering from other serious illness).
Symptoms of food poisoning can include an upset stomach, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, headaches, pus or blood in bowel movements, extreme exhaustion and even fever. Onset can occur as early as twenty minutes after eating a tainted food product or take as long as six weeks to appear. Most commonly, foodborne illnesses affect the digestive system in one to three days after ingesting the culprit. And, most cases are mild and can be treated at home. Rest and plenty of liquids are often enough to speed recovery but if symptoms are acute or worsen, it’s best to consult a physician.
Simple steps can be taken to minimize and prevent the possibility of foodborne illness. The first rule is to keep clean and this means everything from the food preparer’s hands to utensils, countertops, and serving plates. Anyone preparing food should wash their hands first with warm, soapy water. All utenils used in food preparation should be clean. When dealing with raw meat products, keep the utensils, i.e. knives, cutting boards, turning forks, etc, seperate from those used with other foods. Wash thoroughly after handling raw meat. Store fresh meats for no more than 1-2 days in the refrigerator before use and consult consumer guidelines for the limits on freezing meat products.
If heading out on a picnic or cookout in an outdoor location, be sure to store raw meats in a seperate cooler from beverages, salads, and other foods. If hand washing facilities are not available, bring along sanitizing hand wipes or moist towellettes to use after handling raw meats.
At home or away, be sure to check all meats to insure that they are cooked to a safe temperature. Failing to fully cook meat can allow dangerous bacteria to breed and cause illness. Although cases of E-coli have diminished in recent years, e-coli outbreaks can be deadly. Other illness including salmonella and listeria can also begin with undercooked meat. Beef – including hamburgers – should be cooked to at least 160 degrees Farenheit. Poultry should reach at least 170 degrees and pork should register 180 degrees or more. Hot dogs – although sold fully cooked – should be cooked until they reach 165 degrees. Insert a meat thermometer into the center of meat and leave for 30 seconds for an accurate reading. Meat thermometers are available in most discount stores, hardware stores, kitchen specialty shops and even many supermarkets at nominal cost. Remember that no matter how experienced the cook, it is impossible to judge whether meat is done by appearance alone.
Avoid transferring cooked meat to a platter that held the raw product. Do not use the same cooking utensils unless these have been washed in hot, soapy water.
A standard in food safety is to keep hot foods hot, cold foods cold. Refrigerators should be set to 40 degrees Farenheit. Higher temperatures can allow bacteria to grow. If unsure about the temperature in a home refrigerator, invest in a thermometer to gauge the exact temperature. When transporting foods in cooler, make sure that it is an insulated cooler. Pack foods in several inches of ice or ice packs. Replensish as needed to maintain a cold temperature.
When temperatures are below 90 degrees, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reccommends that food not be left out – at room or outside temperatures – for any longer than two hours. When temperatures soar above 90, an hour or less is the limit. This is because bacteria grows most rapidly between 90 and 100 degrees.
Bacteria in room temperature foods can double every twenty minutes.
Foods that require extreme caution include mayonaise based products such as potato or macroni salads. These foods tend to break down and allow bacteria to breed quicker than other products.
Cleanliness, frequent hand washing, safe temperatures, and common sense are the key to preventing most foodborne illnesses. Prevention IS the best medicine for these illnesses which can range from mild to severe.