Protect Yourself From Food-Borne Illness
“I COULDN’T even leave the bathroom for 12 hours,” says Becky. “The cramps were incredible. And I became so dehydrated, I had to get IV fluids in the emergency room. It was two or three weeks before I felt normal again.”
Becky was afflicted with food poisoning, a food-borne illness. Like most victims, she survived. But the memory of her ordeal remains vivid. “I never realized food poisoning could make you feel so sick,” she says.
Experiences such as this, and worse, are disturbingly common. Dozens of bacteria, viruses, parasites, and protozoans threaten to poison our food. And while some types of food-borne illness have decreased in industrialized countries in recent years, World Health magazine reports that “salmonellosis and some others have defied all efforts to control them.”
The incidence of food poisoning is difficult to track because most cases go unreported. Dr. Jane Koehler of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control says: “What we know about is just the tip of the iceberg.”
What causes food-borne illness? You may be surprised to learn that the problem often begins long before food reaches the market.
Farming an Epidemic
Modern farming techniques all but guarantee rapid transmission of pathogens among livestock. In the United States beef industry, for example, calves from approximately 900,000 farms are merged into fewer than a hundred plants for slaughtering. Such intermixing can cause one farm’s contaminant to start an epidemic.
Furthermore, Dr. Edward L. Menning, director of the National Association of Federal Veterinarians, claims that in the United States, “thirty percent or more of the animal feed is contaminated with pathogens.” Sometimes animal feed is fortified with slaughterhouse waste to provide extra protein—a practice that can spread salmonella and other germs. When animals are given low doses of antibiotics to enhance growth, germs can be rendered drug-resistant. “A good example is salmonella, which is becoming more resistant to antibiotics,” says Dr. Robert V. Tauxe of the Centers for Disease Control. “We think it is because antibiotics are being given to food animals. This may be the case for other bacteria as well.”
In the United States, only a small percentage of chickens have salmonella in their intestines when leaving the farm for the slaughterhouse, but microbiologist Nelson Cox claims that “this explodes to twenty to twenty-five percent in transport.” Jammed into small coops, chickens can easily become infected. High-speed slaughter and processing increases the risk. “At the end of the line the birds are no cleaner than if they had been dipped in a dirty toilet,” claims microbiologist Gerald Kuester. “They may have been washed, but the germs are still there.”
Likewise, large-scale meat processing can be dangerous. “Food batches in modern processing plants are so large that one or two infected lots of incoming food can contaminate tons of the finished product,” says The Encyclopedia of Common Diseases. A single piece of tainted beef, for example, can contaminate every hamburger emerging from that same grinder. Furthermore, food prepared at a central location and then shipped to stores and restaurants may be susceptible to contamination if the proper temperature is not maintained during shipment.
How much food arriving at the marketplace is a potential threat? “At least 60 percent of everything in the retail case,” claims Dr. Menning, speaking of the United States. But you can take steps to protect yourself from food-borne illness, for FDA Consumer magazine notes that “30 percent of all such illness results from unsafe handling of food at home.” What precautions can you take?
Before You Buy It . . .
Read the label. What are the ingredients? Be cautious if raw eggs have been used, such as in salad dressings or in mayonnaise. Milk and cheese should be labeled “pasteurized.” Notice the “sell by” or “use by” date warnings. Do not assume that products claiming to be all natural are guaranteed to be safe; they may expose you to dangers that additives were designed to prevent.
Scrutinize the food and its packaging. If food doesn’t look fresh, don’t buy it. As for fish, whole fish should have clear eyes, red gills, and unmarred, firm flesh, and fillets and steaks should be bright and shiny, without a strong and unpleasant odor. Fish should be either on a bed of ice or in a refrigerated case. Precooked fish displayed alongside raw fish can become cross-contaminated. Furthermore, leaking, bulging, or otherwise damaged cans and jars can lead to botulism—a rare but sometimes fatal poisoning that attacks the central nervous system.
Before You Eat It . . .
Cook it thoroughly. This is one of your greatest defenses against infection. “Assume that every product of animal origin is contaminated, and handle it accordingly,” advises Dr. Cohen. Eggs should be cooked until both the yolk and the white are firm, not runny. Since bacteria can grow at temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit [4° and 60° C.], meat should be cooked so that the center reaches 160 degrees Fahrenheit [71° C.], and poultry should reach 180 degrees Fahrenheit [82° C.].
Practice clean cooking. All utensils should be thoroughly cleaned after use. While some claim that wooden cutting boards can harbor bacteria, one study suggests that they are safer than plastic boards.* Whatever type of board you use should be washed thoroughly with soap and hot water. Some suggest using bleach as well. Wash your hands after handling raw meat and poultry, for anything you touch can become contaminated.
Watch the clock. Bring home groceries as soon as possible. Furthermore, “nothing should be out of the refrigerator for more than two hours, whether it is cooked or raw,” says dietician Gail A. Levey. “If the temperature outside is over 90 degrees [32° C.],” she adds, “cut that time to an hour.”
Before You Store It . . .
Use adequate containers. Apportion hot foods into small containers so that they will cool quickly in the refrigerator. Allow room for circulation around the containers so that the temperature in your refrigerator or freezer does not rise. All containers should be covered to prevent cross-contamination.
Check your refrigerator. The freezer temperature should be no higher than 0 degrees Fahrenheit [-18° C.], and that of the refrigerator should be below 40 degrees Fahrenheit [4° C.]. While meat and poultry can be stored in the freezer for months, they can begin to spoil in the refrigerator in just days. Eggs should be used within three weeks. To avoid cracking and to keep them cold enough, it is best if they are left in their original carton and stored in the main part of the refrigerator rather than in the egg tray located on the inside of the door, one of the refrigerator’s warmest areas.
Despite all the above precautions, if food looks or smells suspicious, throw it out! While food-borne illness often comes and goes without severe consequences, in some cases—especially with children, the elderly, and those with immune deficiencies—it can be fatal.*
It was millenniums ago that God told Noah: “All the animals, birds, and fish, . . . I give them all to you for food.” (Genesis 9:2, 3, Today’s English Version) Production-line slaughtering and centralized processing coupled with large-scale distribution add an ominous commentary to those words. Therefore, do your part as a consumer. Be careful when you shop, cook, and store your food.
If you should fall victim to a food-borne illness, get plenty of rest, and drink liquids such as juice, broth, or flat soda. If neurological symptoms develop or if fever, dizziness, vomiting, bloody stools, or severe pain persists or if you are in a high-risk group, it may be advisable to consult a doctor.
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When Eating Away From Home
Picnics. Use a well-insulated cooler packed with ice. It may be best to keep it in the passenger area of your car rather than in the trunk. At the picnic the cooler should be kept in the shade with the lid shut. Keep all raw foods separate from other food items. Partially cooking food at home and then finishing up later on a grill is not recommended, for incomplete cooking encourages bacterial growth.
Restaurants. “Avoid restaurants that don’t look clean,” warns Dr. Jonathan Edlow. “If the dining area seems dirty, the kitchen probably is too.” Send back any “hot” food that is not hot or thoroughly cooked. Poultry that is even slightly pink should not be consumed. Fried eggs should be cooked well on both sides. “The runnier the yolk, the higher the risk,” cautions FDA Consumer.
Salad bars. Since they combine foods that require different levels of cooking and refrigeration, salad bars make what Newsweek magazine calls “perfect microbial playgrounds.” Check the salad bar for cleanness, and make sure that foods that should be chilled are kept on a bed of ice. Even when salad bars are maintained well, germs can be transmitted from one patron to the next. As microbiologist Michael Pariza said: “You don’t know who last touched the scoop that falls in the dressing.”
Social gatherings. Dr. Edlow suggests that when serving food buffet-style, the host should “place small amounts of food on the table and restock serving dishes from a refrigerated or heated supply rather than letting food sit for a long time.” Keep cold foods below 40 degrees Fahrenheit [4° C.] and hot foods above 140 degrees Fahrenheit [60° C.]. Meat cooked for later use should be immediately refrigerated and should remain that way until ready for transport. Before it is eaten, the food can be thoroughly reheated.
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If it doesn’t look fresh, don’t buy it
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Is the kitchen in the restaurant where you eat clean?