Summer time is a season of picnics, poolside lunches, and grill outs. Get togethers with friends and family are often centered around food and outdoor activities. Unfortunately, warm weather is also accompanied by a spike in foodborne illness. During summer months, there are often multiple reports of food recalls due to contamination or reported illnesses due to eating unsafe foods. A simple search through recent news almost always reveals cases or recent articles about these sicknesses. Starting in May, there were reports of tuna contaminated with hepatitis A in Hawaii. Additional fish that had been shipped to the mainland also tested positive for hepatitis A, leading to a recall of the contaminated fish to prevent the use of the contaminated fish. Earlier this month, there was a salmonella outbreak linked to a restaurant in Michigan with associated cases in Ohio and Illinois. As such, food safety is not an issue that should be ignored. Below I have outlined the basics of food safety and explained what exactly causes food poisoning.
According to the CDC, “1 in 6 Americans gets sick by consuming contaminated foods or beverages,” leading to approximately 48 million cases of food poisoning every year. That is a lot of preventable sickness affecting our friends, family, and community. These illnesses can be caused by any number of bacteria, parasites, or viruses in our food due to contamination, cross contamination, or improper handling. Symptoms of foodborne illness usually brings to mind vomiting and diarrhea, but they can be as varied as blurred vision, weakness, fever, or even bleeding within the skin. Of course, if the symptoms are not managed appropriately or if the disease is contracted by someone with a compromised immune system, there is a higher risk of hospitalization or even death. The FDA website has a handy table of common pathogens and their disease symptoms, as seen here.
It is also important to note that some people are more susceptible to food poisoning than others. At risk groups of people include the elderly and children because their immune systems are not as effective as the general population, pregnant women, and immunocompromised individuals. Pregnant women are at risk because their immune systems change when they are pregnant. Both the mother and the unborn baby (who does not have a developed immune system) are at risk. Immunocompromised individuals have a weak immune system or are taking medications to prevent immune function as part of another disease treatment plan.
Some foods are also at a higher risk of carrying disease carrying pathogens than others. For example, uncooked or improperly cooked meat, fish, shellfish, eggs, and poultry can be dangerous if consumed. Unpasteurized milk, juice, diary products, and cheeses. Unwashed produce and raw sprouts can also carry risk. Proper food safety and preparation can help reduce the risk of eating contaminated food or spreading germs from person to person.
So, what can you do to reduce your likelihood of contracting a foodborne illness? There are 5 easy to follow tips for safer foods outlined by the WHO. The first is to keep yourself and your kitchen clean by washing your hands and all surfaces that food comes into contact with. This can help reduce contamination by common germs. The second is to keep raw foods separate from cooked food, including using separate utensils, cutting boards, and containers. Raw food, especially meat, fish, and poultry, contain microscopic organisms that can make you sick and can contaminate your cooked foods or raw produce. This leads to ther third tip. Properly cooked and prepared foods significantly reduce your risk of food poisoning because it kills harmful bacteria. Furthermore, store foods promptly after eating, and keep the foods that are being served at an appropriate temperature. When food becomes room temperature, this is the perfect environment for microorganisms to grow and multiply, increasing your chances of getting sick. This is why food at picnics and parties pose such a risk. Additionally, be sure that all the food you are eating is fresh, properly prepared, and cleaned with clean, safe water.
Although foodborne illnesses seem daunting, simple rules and food handling procedures can help keep you and your family safe this summer. Don’t cancel your summer beach bash simply because you fear eating warm potato salad. Instead, prepare ahead and have a little responsibility during your party to ensure that all your guests are safe. After all, taking a minute to put uneaten food in the fridge or wipe down counter tops is a small sacrifice to make when the alternative is hearing about how ill your friends feel the next day! Have a safe and fun summer in the sun!