Today is World Health Day and this year the World Health Organization is shining a spotlight on food safety, an issue that is linked to the deaths of 2 million people annually.
With regulatory agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration working around the clock to keep America’s food safe, you may think there’s nothing to worry about, but the numbers tell a different story.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 46 million cases of foodborne illness are reported annually, meaning 1 in 6 Americans will get sick from their food. Novant Health registered dietitian Cheryl Kuhta-Sutter reminds her patients that foodborne illness can develop at any point in the food’s journey from the farm field to the grocery store to your dinner table.
“Our government agencies do lots of good work to make sure the sources of our food are safe and to alert us when issues arise through recalls, but the way you prepare your food is just as important as where it comes from,” she said.
According to Kuhta-Sutter, there are four common poisonings U.S. consumers are likely to get from their food, and nearly all of them can be prevented through proper food handling and preparation.
- Salmonella. “Most everyone knows you can get salmonella from undercooked chicken or raw eggs, but few people remember that even egg shells can be carriers,” Kuhta-Sutter said. “Even if you take great care not to touch the runny part of the egg when you’re cooking, always wash your hands after handling the shells, which can carry traces of dirt and chicken feces.”
Possible signs and symptoms of salmonella include nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, fever, chills and headache.
- E. coli. Escherichia coli bacteria occur naturally in the intestines of healthy people and animals. Most varieties are harmless or cause brief and minor symptoms, but some strains can cause severe abdominal cramps, bloody diarrhea and vomiting. “The bad E. coli often gets on our produce when irrigation water is contaminated with animal feces. Unfortunately, even washing the affected crops won’t remove the bacteria, so pay close attention to FDA recalls,” Kuhta-Sutter said.
E. coli can also be contracted from improperly cooked beef.
- Listeria. Listeria is a foodborne bacterial illness that is most commonly caused by eating improperly processed deli meats, undercooked pork and unpasteurized milk. Although it rarely affects healthy people, it can be fatal to unborn babies, newborns and people with weakened immune systems. “Listeria is a pretty nasty disease that spreads to your nervous system, so make sure you never eat pork that is still pink. When cooking at home, make sure the meat reaches 165 degrees before serving,” Kuhta-Sutter explained.
Symptoms can develop up to two months after eating the contaminated food and include fever, muscle aches, nausea, diarrhea, headache, stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance and convulsions.
- Botulism. One of the rarer foodborne illnesses found in the U.S., botulism is a serious illness caused by bacterium found in soil. It is commonly caused by improperly canned foods. Honey can also contain the bacteria and affect young children, but rarely adults. “Avoid dented cans when doing your grocery shopping,” warned Kuhta-Sutter. Experts also recommend not giving honey to children under 12 months old.
Infants who are infected may experience lethargy, weakness, constipation, poor head control and poor sucking reflex. Older children and adults report double or blurred vision, drooping eyelids, slurred speech, difficulty swallowing, dry mouth and muscle weakness.
Foodborne illness is no picnic, so Kuhta-Sutter recommends following the four rules of food safety so you don’t lose your appetite for your favorite foods.
- Clean your hands, utensils, cutting boards and surfaces after each use to stop the spread of illness-causing bacteria. Always wash fruits and veggies before eating, even if you plan to peel them.
- Separate meat, poultry, seafood and eggs from other foods. Never reuse a plate or cutting board that held raw meat without washing it thoroughly. In your fridge, place raw meat, poultry and seafood in containers or sealed plastic bags to prevent their juices from dripping or leaking onto other foods.
- Cook hot foods to at least 140 degrees and keep cooled foods under 40 degrees. Anywhere in-between is the “danger zone” where bacteria multiply most quickly. Use a cooking thermometer to ensure you’ve reached the correct temperature instead of judging by color or texture.
- Chill food promptly after serving. Bacteria can begin to grow on perishable foods after only two hours, unless refrigerated. Invest in an appliance thermometer to make sure your refrigerator is cold enough to keep food safe.