Foodborne illness outbreaks: How to stay safe

Food-borne illness, also referred to as food poisoning, results from eating food contaminated by infectious organisms and/or their toxins.  These infectious organisms can contaminate food throughout the production process: growing, harvesting, processing, storing, transporting or cooking.  Contamination does not necessarily only happen at one point in the process, but could have occurred at multiple points.  Their rough, porous skin is an ideal breeding ground for bacteria.  They grow on the ground where they are exposed to dirt, germs and possibly, animal feces; their crevices make thorough cleaning difficult and while cutting them, knives can transfer the bacteria to the inside flesh.


Although most are preventable, food-borne illnesses continue to be a big problem in our nation.  The CDC (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) estimates that there are almost 50 million illnesses linked to foodborne illness annually.  If we look at just the past two weeks, cases of salmonella poisoning have led to THREE food recalls.  These outbreaks have been first identified in Minnesota which serves as a strong state health department, with thorough review and analysis of foodborne illness. Minnesota is a great example of how to catch outbreaks quickly and effectively, but it seems these outbreaks are occurring every few months anyway.   Some of these outbreaks are caused by the well-known culprits like Salmonella and E. coli, or less familiar organisms like Listeria, or Vibrio.

Symptoms of food poisoning can begin anywhere from hours to days or even weeks after consuming contaminated food.  Typical symptoms are:

·         Nausea

·         Vomiting

·         Diarrhea

·         abdominal pain/cramps

·         fever

Symptoms associated with food poisoning last, on average, from one to ten days.  Treatment most often involves rehydration and antibiotics, depending on the type of bacteria.  People with impaired immune systems, such as the elderly, pregnant women, infants, and patients with chronic diseases, are at a greater risk of contracting a severe form of food poisoning requiring hospitalization.  If you develop a fever of greater than 101.5°, have severe diarrhea for more than three days, have blood in your vomit or bowel movements, or have symptoms of severe dehydration, you should seek the attention of a medical professional.

As these outbreaks are rather common, what is the best way to stay safe? If you suspect food poisoning or have been formally diagnosed, contact your local health department to report your symptoms.  You can tell them what and where you ate and how soon after eating you became sick.  This information could help them identify an outbreak and prevent other people from getting sick.  Just by taking a few, simple precautionary measures you can mitigate your potential consumption of contaminated foods and stay safe.

Safety tips:

1.       When cooking, be sure to wash your hands, utensils and cooking surfaces thoroughly and often.

2.       While cutting raw food, (i.e. poultry, beef, fish) keep separate from other foods to prevent cross-contamination.

3.       Always cook foods to a safe temperature. 

4.       Refrigerate or freeze perishable foods immediately. 

5.       Defrost foods in a refrigerator over a couple hours or under cool running water

a.       Do not defrost on the counter at room temperature

6.       If you are aware of a contaminated food, don’t buy it! 

7.       If you are doubtful of where your food originated, discard it to be safe.