By: Kerry Bazany

Once upon a rather long time ago, I graduated high school and celebrated this grand event with my family at a local restaurant. My favorite dressing at that time was Thousand Island, and I generously lathered it onto my salad that night. Almost 24 hours later, I became violently ill with fierce gastrointestinal symptoms that are best left undescribed. Back then, I was erroneously diagnosed with bad stomach flu, but when I finally ended up in the emergency room, it was discovered that I had contracted Shigella from the unrefrigerated salad dressing the night of my graduation. In contrast to diagnostic methods from years ago, those that present with severe gastrointestinal symptoms are now routinely screened for foodborne pathogens.

Between 250 and 350 million Americans are estimated to suffer acute gastroenteritis annually, with 25% to 30% thought to be caused by foodborne illnesses. Most vulnerable to foodborne diseases are elderly people, pregnant women, immune-compromised people, and children.

Food Poisoning is Different from Foodborne Illness

“Food poisoning” and “foodborne illness” are two distinct concepts. Commonly, people say they have food poisoning, when indeed they may be suffering from either.

Common symptoms of food poisoning are nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, and diarrhea. If you experience any symptoms of foodborne illness, stay hydrated and get a sufficient amount of rest. If the symptoms are particularly virulent, contact a physician.

Don’t Invite These Unwelcome Guests to Your Next Party (or Anytime, for That Matter)

The holidays will soon be upon us, and of course that means food! The same precautions when normally preparing food still apply, and they are:

  • CLEAN!! Wash hands and clean food preparation surfaces often (I wash my hands almost obsessively, especially when handling raw meat. This is old habit, and well, I just don’t like the slimy or greasy feeling of the meat).
  • SEPARATE raw meats from ALL OTHER foods. It is so easy for nasty bacteria to transfer from meat surfaces to just about anything else you’re preparing.
  • COOK to the right temperature. This appears overstated, but many do not cook to optimal temperatures, especially with pork. Use a meat thermometer!
  • CHILL: Refrigerate food promptly.

Perhaps one of the greatest temptations during the holiday season is to eat raw, packaged cookie dough right out of the package, but doing so could make you sick from bacteria. The same goes for homemade dough that is made with eggs. Even pasteurized eggs can carry pathogens. Remember that contamination can happen at any stage of the consumption process, from harvesting to transport to retail presentation, and of course, during home preparation.

The Top Food Pathogens Described and Explained

  • Norovirus This is the leading cause of viral foodborne illness symptoms in the U.S, and can be easily passed from infected individuals to food items. Its source is any food contaminated by someone who is infected, and can be transmitted by food handlers who do not properly wash their hands. Norovirus is also sometimes called gastroenteritis, or food poisoning, due to symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhea.
  • Campylobacter This bacterium is one of the most common causes of diarrhea in the United States. Its source is raw and undercooked poultry, raw milk, and untreated water.
  • Clostridium botulinum Produces a toxin that precipitates the growth of botulism. Botulism is deadly because it can paralyze the breathing muscles in the lungs. It often occurs in home-canned goods due to their low acidity.
  • coli Causes approximately 73,000 cases of foodborne illnesses each year in the U.S. Its sources can be found in undercooked or raw hamburger, produce, raw milk, and unpasteurized juices and ciders.
  • Listeria Causes listeriosis, a serious disease for pregnant women, newborns, and adults with a weakened immune system. Common sources include unpasteurized dairy products, including soft cheeses; sliced deli meats; smoked fish; hot dogs; pate’; and deli-prepared salads (i.e. egg, ham, seafood, and chicken salads).
  • Salmonella This is the leading cause of bacterial diarrhea in the U.S. States, and the most common cause of foodborne deaths. Responsible for 1.4 million cases of foodborne illness a year. Sources include raw and undercooked eggs, undercooked poultry and meat, fresh fruits and vegetables, and unpasteurized dairy products.
  • Shigella Causes an estimated 448,000 cases of foodborne illnesses a year. Poor hygiene hastens the transmission of the illness from person to person. Its sources are salads, unclean water, and food handled by a person infected with the bacterium.
  • Vibrio vulnificus, Causes gastroenteritis, wound infection, and severe bloodstream infections. People with liver diseases are at especially high risk. Sources of this virus are raw or undercooked seafood, particularly shellfish.

You Know What They Say About an Ounce of Prevention….

The very easiest thing to do is take precautions in order to not become a victim of foodborne illnesses. Our food, including meat, produce and canned and packaged goods are safer than ever before; however it is always good practice to check the FDA’s recall list on a regular basis. It is also prudent to always utilize the aforementioned home food safety practices: clean, separate, cook, and chill.

Happy Holidays and Happy Cooking!!