Food Safety - Preventing Foodborne Illness

Introduction

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 gastrointestinal upset.

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 alone.

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 cooked.

Symptoms of fooborne illness

Common symptoms of foodborne illness include diarrhea, abdominal cramping, fever, headache, 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.



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