The first community outbreak in the U.S. of E. coli 011:H8 sickened 58 teenagers at a cheer-leading camp in Texas. Suspected sources of infection included the camp salad bar and a communal water barrel. One of the largest E. coli 0157:H7 outbreaks on record infected more than 1000 people in upstate New York at a county fair. The bacterium was found in infected well water. It killed a 79-year-old man and a 4-year-old girl, and it required 10 other children to undergo kidney dialysis. Six adults and a 2-year-old child were killed after an E. coli outbreak from contaminated drinking water in Canada. The bacteria entered the water supply from animal manure after flooding from a heavy storm. In northeastern Oklahoma, five children were infected with E. coli after consuming unpasteurized apple cider. Recently 25 million pounds of hamburger had to be recalled because of potential E. coli 0157:H7 contamination.
Why is food-borne illness so common? Let me count the ways:
- Problems with mishandling of food by consumers and food service workers is the most common reason.
- Greater interest of eating foods of animal origin raw or undercooked.
- Greater use of medications that suppress the immune system.
- An increase in the number of older adults in the population
- The food industry tries to increase the shelf life of food products.
- Some bacteria can grow even at refrigerator temperatures.
- More of our food is prepared in centralized kitchens outside the home and shipped to individual stores – prepackaged or in bulk.
- We have supermarkets selling prepared foods as well as those that can be reheated.
- We now import more ready-to-eat foods from other countries like seafood from Asia
- Use of antibiotics in animals can encourage bacteria to develop resistant strains.
- More cases of food-borne illness are being reported than in the past.
- Our list of food-borne pathogens has increased.
- Careless treatment of animals in slaughterhouses.
- Overall the growth of large-scale food production and distribution technologies has introduced new and different food-borne risks.
- What can we do?
WARNING: I have taught microbiology for many years. Therefore, I am more than likely to be on the picky side of food-borne illness prevention. I am not the most fun person to have dinner with. I would be happy if I could inspect all kitchens when eating out and when I handle chicken, I would feel more comfortable wearing a Hazmat suit. I’ve heard some microbiology -type “people” like me who won’t even eat in restaurants. I do not go to that extreme. Just sayin’.
No matter the type of microorganism, these general prevention practices can help cut our risks of food-borne illness. I know the list is long but in time can be routine and save you and your family a lot of misery and maybe your life. Most are no-brainers, but there may be some you had not thought of.
- Only buy sushi form a reliable source to avoid tapeworms.
- Avoid bagged salads and greens. Buy them whole and wash them yourself.
- Promptly refrigerate all foods after shopping
- Use an insulated bag to put perishable foods into when traveling in a hot car for home.
- Avoid unpasteurized milk, raw eggs, or unpasteurized apple cider.
- Wash your hands, wash your hands, and wash your hands.
- Wash all fruits and vegetables before eating or cooking – even the ones with skins. If you cut them open, bacteria on the outside will move inside and contaminate the whole fruit.
- Thaw meat in the refrigerator or in the microwave, not at room temperature. If using the microwave, use the defrost setting.
- Use different cutting boards for different types of foods to avoid cross-contamination. Sanitize cutting boards and counter tops before and after food preparation. Avoid dirty kitchen towels and contaminated utensils (e.g. knives).
- Sponges are probably most common source of contamination. Change or disinfect them often
- Cover all cuts on your skin when preparing food – Staphylococcus live on our skin, primarily on our fingers and under fingernails
- Thorough cooking of meat is mandatory – at least to 160 degrees F. This means beef, pork, wild game, seafood and fish. Use a reliable food thermometer
- Serve the food on a clean plate – not the plate you took it to the grill with.
STORING AND REHEATING
- Thoroughly reheat leftover foods to 165 degrees F.
- Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Hold food below 40 degrees F. or above 140 degrees F. and don’t leave cooked foods at room temperature for more than 2 hours (1 hour in hot weather).
- Use a refrigerator thermometer to make sure the temperature is below 40 degrees F.
- Use refrigerated ground meat and patties in 1-2 days and frozen meat and patties within 3-4 months.
- Throw out all refrigerated leftovers after four days.
- Use an insulated pouch with an ice pack to carry perishable lunch items (meat-filled sandwiches, yogurt or cheese).
- Do not store raw eggs or milk on the refrigerator door since the temperature here does not remain constant.