What do chicken, turkey, cucumbers and peanut butter have in common? If you answered healthy, nutrient-dense foods, you’d be correct. After all, food is supposed to be good for you. In fact, we can’t live without it. Yet sometimes it’s food that makes us sick — really sick. These four foods were the culprits in some of the worst foodborne illness outbreaks in the U.S. in recent history. The good news is that there are ways to protect against foodborne illness.
Foodborne illness, commonly known as food poisoning, happens when food is contaminated with one of several organisms that cause a range of symptoms spanning from mild stomach upset to death. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 1 in 6 Americans are affected by tainted food, resulting in nearly 130,000 hospitalizations annually. On a global level, nearly 1 in 10 people each year suffer from foodborne illness caused by one of 31 agents that include bacteria, viruses, parasites, toxins and chemicals. Among the top culprits, according to the World Health Organization, are salmonella, norovirus and campylobacter. In the U.S., E. coli and listeria have made headline news for sickening several people.
Salmonella is caused by bacteria that infects the intestinal tract. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Susceptible foods are raw meat, poultry and seafood, and raw or undercooked eggs. Also, fresh fruits and vegetables eaten uncooked such as salads that have either come in contact with the aforementioned foods or been handled by someone who has salmonella in their intestinal tracts and doesn’t wash their hands well after using the restroom. Peanut butter can also harbor salmonella.
Norovirus is another foodborne illness than can be prevented by good hand-washing, especially after restroom use. Vomiting, diarrhea (sometimes bloody) and stomach cramps are chief complains. Foods that typically transmit Norovirus are homemade or store-bought salads and sandwiches. Oysters, fruits and vegetables can also be carriers of this virus. Norovirus is highly contagious.
Campylobacter is most commonly caused by improperly cooked poultry — or by eating something such as raw fruits or vegetables that have come in contact with a kitchen counter, sink or cutlery that hasn’t been washed well after encountering raw poultry juices. Fever, nausea and watery diarrhea are warning signs of this foodborne illness.
E. coli contamination has proved deadly, especially when a child or senior or someone with a serious pre-existing medical condition gets infected. Undercooked meats and raw dairy products can harbor these bacteria. Lettuce, alfalfa sprouts and unpasteurized apple cider have become harbingers for E. coli through contact with the feces of infected animals. The result is bloody diarrhea and possibly kidney failure that can lead to death.
Listeria is found most often in deli meats and hot dogs, as well as soft cheeses, ice cream, celery and sprouts. This germ is especially harmful to pregnant women and can lead to a higher likelihood of miscarriage. Other symptoms include muscle aches, headaches, stiff neck and fever.
There are five key factors that can help to prevent foodborne illness.
- Keep it clean. This means washing hands and sanitizing the food preparation area.
- Separate raw and cooked foods. For example, don’t store raw chicken on the top rack of the refrigerator and fresh unwrapped lettuce underneath; this encourages potential contamination.
- Cook foods thoroughly. This especially means meats, poultry, seafood and eggs.
- Keep cold foods cold, hot foods hot and don’t leave cooked food at room temperature for longer than two hours.
- Finally, take care to select fresh wholesome foods when shopping.
Carol Bareuther is a registered dietitian and freelance health and nutrition writer. Comments are welcome at email@example.com.