As we head into the warmer spring months, the recalls have already started. Romaine lettuce contaminated with E. coli and eggs tainted by Salmonella have already been the subject of significant national recalls this month– and it’s only halfway through April! Learn what foods to avoid, the symptoms of food borne illness, and, as a last resort, what to do if you get sick so that you can protect yourself and others around you.
Well, the short answer is bacteria, viruses, parasites, and chemicals. The three most common causes of food borne illness are Salmonella, a bacterium, E. coli, some bacteria, and Listeria, another bacterium. Other types of well-known food borne illness are norovirus, a virus, Cryptosporidium, a parasite, and some pesticides, prime examples of chemicals. The most common foods that transmit food borne illness are raw eggs, unwashed fruits and vegetables, raw milk and cheese, unprocessed flour, and raw meats, like poultry and red meats.
As tempting as it might be to dip into that raw cookie dough, be careful– uncooked eggs are prime breeding grounds for salmonella. To avoid being at risk for salmonella, cook eggs thoroughly until the whites and yolks are firm, and avoid dipping into any raw dough or batter. Be sure to refrigerate eggs at a temperature equal to or below 40 degrees for the safest processed goods possible. If eggs are cracked or dirty, throw them out. You don’t want to put yourself at risk for salmonella!
Unwashed Fruits and Vegetables
Unwashed fruits and vegetables, as a category, carry the highest risk of being a carrier of any food borne illness. To avoid picking fruits and veggies that could get you sick, avoid those that looked bruised and damaged. When you take them home, be sure to wash the skins and any utensils or cutting boards you plan on losing to prevent the spread of bacteria from the outside to the inside of the produce. If you don’t use them immediately after cutting, store them apart from meats and dairy in a cold, clean container, preferably one colder than 40 degrees.
Raw Milk and Cheese
If you get worried about the prospect of giving up cheese, don’t worry– raw milk isn’t quite the pasteurized version that you’d buy in your local grocery store. Raw milk and by extension, milk products, are products that haven’t been pasteurized– or heated to a specific temperature to kill off germs and bacteria. Although many people tout the health benefits of raw milk, get a second opinion before you drink it, especially if you have young children, are elderly, or are or planning to become pregnant, as these groups are the most at risk for contracting a food borne illness.
In 2016, a 24-state outbreak of Gold Medal flour resulted in many hospitalizations across the country. In any case, raw flour used in either cookie, cake, or bread doughs (and the fresh eggs in these batters!) can be a breeding ground for salmonella and E. coli. Be sure to bake all batters and doughs at the recommended temperature (and for the recommended duration!) and consider pre-made cookie dough ice cream instead of adding raw dough to your ice creams at home! Keeping raw batter separate from ready-to-eat foods is also a good idea and be sure to follow any storage or refrigeration directions!
Raw Meats and Poultry
Like many of the other types of food that act as carriers for food borne illness, fresh meats are a carrier of Salmonella. To avoid Salmonella, be sure to cook all meats to the proper internal temperature and refrigerate uncooked beef or poultry within two hours of cutting. If you have a massive cut, consider dicing the chunk of meat into smaller pieces so they can reach the appropriate temperature. And like always, make sure you store the raw meat at temperatures at 40 degrees or less! Although some older recipes may call for you to wash the poultry or beef before you prepare it, the CDC recommends not cleaning your meat before you cook it, to avoid contaminating cooking utensils and your workspace.
What to Do When Illness Hits
So, you tried some of that raw chocolate chip cookie dough a few hours ago, and now you have a stomachache. What can you do to minimize the damage? The first step is to get hydrated! Dehydration often leads to many complications after food borne illnesses come to pass. The second step is to try and identify the food that caused this reaction– that is if you don’t know already. This knowledge will be helpful if you get very ill and the Centers for Disease Control launches an investigation into the cause. Thirdly, get some rest! In many cases, food borne illnesses must run their course, as awful as that seems. But how can you identify which food borne disease you have? Great question!
Common symptoms of food borne illnesses include vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pains, chills, and accompanying fever. Specific diseases may have additional symptoms– like the muscle pains that are a part of norovirus infection, the headache that accompanies salmonella, and loss of coordination associated with the nervous system-rocking effects of listeria. Although food borne illness often runs their course alone, without medical intervention, you should see a doctor if you are elderly, pregnant, or if the disease affects small children and infants, or if you exhibit any severe symptoms. Severe symptoms include severe dehydration, prolonged vomiting, a fever above 101 degrees, bloody vomit or feces, or nervous system symptoms (a headache, neck stiffness, loss of balance, confusion.)
Complications of Food Borne Illness
If left untreated, or if treated poorly, untreated food borne illness can lead to severe complications, like kidney disease, organ failure, shock, or comas. Dehydration is often the underlying cause of many of these complications, which is why doctors stress the value of staying hydrated adequately when people are ill. Other complications include irritable bowel syndrome, reactive arthritis (caused by swelling in the joints,) and Guillain-Barré syndrome– an illness that leads to paralysis or muscle weakness in the upper and lower body that begins in the lower body and progresses to the upper body. Most people recover from Guillain-Barré Syndrome in around six to twelve months, on average.
Have you or a family member been affected by a food borne illness, but lived to tell the tale? We want to hear your stories of how it happened and what you did to remedy it! Let us know in the comments below!