It seems that every year a new outbreak of food poisoning causes people to once again reconsider food safety. In both 2011 and 2012, listeria outbreaks link to contaminated cantaloupe resulted in a number of deaths due to food poisoning. While most people take for granted the safety of food in the U.S., taking the time to correctly wash and store fruit, vegetables, and meats can make the difference between staying healthy and contracting a food borne illness. With that in mind, here are some of the more common types of food poisoning and what you can do to protect yourself.
A potentially life threatening illness, listeria is generally contracted by eating contaminated fruits and vegetables. The symptoms of the illness mimics the flu and can include fever, muscle aches, nausea, and diarrhea. Eating food contaminated by listeria won’t necessarily make you sick immediately, as the symptoms of a bacterial infection can manifest anywhere between a few days to a couple of months after exposure.
To protect yourself from any potential infection, make sure you thoroughly scrub and dry any fresh produce you purchase prior to cutting and storing the produce in a fridge set at a temperature below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
Unlike many types of bacteria, listeria can survive when exposed to colder temperatures. Because storing foods at refrigerated temperatures won’t kill off the bacteria, listeria can also thrive in unpasteurized dairy products made from raw milk, such as yogurt or soft cheeses as feta, Brie, and Mexican queso. Individuals at the highest risk of developing an illness from this type of listeria exposure include the elderly, those with weakened immune systems and pregnant woman. To avoid accidental contamination, only purchase cheeses advertised as pasteurized on the label.
Finally, listeria can also live for years once the bacteria has contaminated a food product. Because of the bacteria’s durability, a chance exists for listeria contamination of processed foods such as hot dogs and deli meats to occur after the foods has been cooked, but prior to packaging. To avoid infection, make sure you never consume ready-to-eat or precooked foods past their use-by-date and always warm these types of foods until steaming prior to eating.
While commonly associated with foul poultry (pun very much intended), salmonella can actually contaminate any type of food. An increased risk of consuming the bacteria does exist, however, when eating eggs because salmonella can infect eggs before the shell forms, providing the chance for even clean, fresh looking eggs to harbor the bacteria. The symptoms of salmonella usually begin 12 to 72 hours following exposure, and include fever, stomach cramps, and diarrhea. The symptoms of salmonella can last anywhere between two to seven days.
To prevent salmonella poisoning, avoid eating raw or undercooked eggs, and always heat poultry to 165 degrees prior to eating. When preparing raw poultry make sure you keep it separate from other foods, and always thoroughly wash your hands and any utensils, cutting boards, or countertops that came into contact with the raw meat.
Salmonella can also contaminate fresh produce, and in recent years a number of reported outbreaks have been tied to the consumption of hot peppers, papayas, salad greens, and tomatoes. Because they’re grown in warm, humid climates, sprouts also carry the risk of salmonella contamination. Exposure to salmonella can be especially dangerous and potentially fatal for young children and the elderly. To ensure the safety of your produce, make sure to thoroughly scrub all fruits and vegetables prior to cutting and storing them at refrigerated temperatures.
As with listeria, a small chance exists that salmonella can contaminate a variety of processed foods, such as peanut butter, soup, crackers, and even frozen meals. In 2009, a salmonella outbreak was linked to packaged foods made with peanuts contaminated at a processing plant. Product recalls will generally educate the public about potentially dangerous food items that should be avoided, and you should never consume an item that has been recalled. Heating any item to 165 degrees will kill salmonella bacteria.
One of the most common types of E. coli exposure comes from ground beef due to the risk of contamination that occurs during the slaughtering process. Since E. coli lives in cattle intestines, a contamination of ground beef can quickly spread the bacteria when the meat is ground. E. coli symptoms can include abdominal cramping, vomiting, and diarrhea; all of which can begin to manifest within a few days of exposure and lasts about a week.
To reduce your risk of exposure, make sure you thoroughly cook all ground beef to 160 degrees, and clean any plates, thermometers, or utensils that came into contact with raw meat with soap and hot water.
E. coli can also contaminate fresh produce if grown with water or fertilizer that carries the bacteria. The greatest risk of exposure comes from leafy greens, as was demonstrated in a 2006 outbreak linked to contaminated spinach. To ensure your safety, wash each leaf of all greens prior to eating, and warm vegetables to steaming to kill any bacteria.
Timothy Lemke is a freelance health and science writer. To read more of his work, visit the website of Dr. Jeromy Dixon, a dentist in Longview, WA.