Food Safety: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

A foodborne illness (more commonly called food poisoning) can occur when we eat contaminated food that contains pathogenic bacteria, viruses or actual parasites.  The statistics of occurrence are overwhelming.  According to the FDA, foodborne pathogens are responsible for 76 million gastrointestinal illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations and 5000 deaths each year in the United States.  Summertime picnics and family gatherings are common this time of year so it’s important that we understand the basics of food safety and how we can protect ourselves.

When we hear the word “bacteria” it often conjures up negative images.  But not all bacteria are pathogenic or have the ability to cause illness.  For instance, yogurt is little more than flavored milk with bacteria added.  This kind of bacteria is known as probiotic meaning that it’s introduced intentionally to the body as a means of bringing good bacteria into the gut.  This so called “good bacteria” helps keep the bad (or pathogenic) bacteria in check by using up some of the bad bacteria’s resources they need to stay alive.

In general, ideal growing conditions for bacteria are moist environments with temperatures between 41-135 degrees Fahrenheit.   Food safety experts call this the “Danger Zone” meaning that if you hold foods for periods of time between those temperatures, you are more likely to propagate the growth of bacterial colonies.  Think about your recent 4th of July barbeque feast.  Moist foods such as potato and pasta salads are particularly susceptible to bacterial growth because they are either left out on the table for long periods of time at room temperature as people serve themselves, subjected to insects, or become contaminated through serving utensils and handling.  Here’s another example- have you ever thawed a piece of frozen chicken in warm water?  As that chicken sits there in a comfy warm water bath (well within danger zone temperatures), millions of bacteria have the opportunity to begin emerging which could potentially make us sick.  And if you think cooking it immediately will kill off all the germs, you’d be wrong.    

Because bacteria can be introduced into food from hands, soiled utensils, or via insects such as flies, the best defense is to wash your hands frequently-especially before handling food.  It’s a simple concept that we’ve all heard time and time again that can’t be stressed enough.  We also want to ensure that food is protected from insects by covering the dish when not in use.  Likewise, serving utensils should not be handled in the area that comes in contact with the food.  At the end of a meal, it’s best to cool your foods quickly in shallow pans in order to decrease the amount of time in those danger zone temperatures.

The symptoms of food poisoning vary greatly depending on the pathogen.  Some have a quick onset meaning you’ll begin to notice symptoms such as nausea and/or vomiting within 30 minutes after eating, while others may take as long as 2 days to emerge.  Some will produce fever and chills while others only cause gastric distress.  Foodborne illness is not only very serious but can leave a person vulnerable to dehydration which can have deadly consequences.  So if you suspect food poisoning, seek medical attention immediately. However, an easier answer is to decrease your chances of contracting it in the first place by taking the right steps to protect your food this summer and throughout the year.

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