Saturday, January 7, 2012

Food Borne Illness

Holidays, family and food go together. Many parties at home or work, pot-luck or gourmet dining, lots of folks will be dining together sharing fun and food. It's a great time to be mindful about food borne illnesses. With many hands in the kitchen and serving dishes you want to be sure you don't spread anything other than the seasonal joy. A staggering number of people are affected by food-borne illnesses most of which are preventable with a small but consistent effort in handling, storing and preparing your food. Thousands are hospitalized with serious complications and tragic outcomes. The most common presentation is severe intestinal distress. Anyone with a chronic illness or compromised immune system is at risk as well as young children, pregnant women and the elderly. However even perfectly normal healthy adults can be adversely affected by severe or life threatening food poisoning. Survivors can recover completely or be left with disabling kidney, neurologic or cardiac problems.

Two of the culprit bacteria E.Coli and Campylobacter are found in some familiar and some not so obvious food products. Consumption of raw eggs has gotten a lot of attention in recent years. Recipes that call for raw should be avoided or use a pasteurized egg substitute. Eggs are available that have been through a pasteurization process in the shell. They can be safe to use and are typically identified by a small red "P" on the packaging as well as their higher price.

Raw meats are also well known to be carriers of bacteria that can cause illness. Whole raw chickens were studied and found to have alarming rates of these common bacteria that cause severe gastroenteritis. Researchers found that two thirds of several hundred chickens purchased randomly at 100 different stores across 22 states to be contaminated with salmonella or campylobacter. Food and agriculture scientists are working to improve the safety and hygiene in commercial food processing. However it emphasizes the importance of thoughtful handling, storage and preparation of your own food. Bagging raw meats carefully and separately at the point of purchase will avoid contamination of other foods and packages in your grocery bag. Prompt refrigeration of raw meats when you get home is imperative. During preparation a separate cutting board should be used for meats only. Cleaning the board, countertop and utensils is critical in preventing cross-contamination. Use an inexpensive insta-check thermometer to determine adequate internal temperatures for doneness when you cook.

All raw produce should be washed before consumption even if it is identified as being washed and ready to eat. Remember that "organic" may mean healthy but does not mean "clean". Different fruit and vegetables have been the source of outbreaks. You cannot recognize the good or bad ones by inspection alone. Obvious over-ripe or damaged fruits and vegetables in general should be avoided. Since 1996 in the U.S. there have been more than thirty outbreaks of diseases associated with contaminated bean sprouts alone. Any product that is consumed raw or lightly cooked is of potential danger so greater care must be exercised. Young children and pregnant women are most vulnerable to some of the associated infections.
Two other products that have been a common source of problems are raw cookie dough and pet foods. How many people succumb to the seduction of raw cookie dough or eat it intentionally. Researchers determined that the culprit in the cookie dough was actually flour. Further investigations demonstrated 13% of whole wheat flours and some flour based mixes to be contaminated with Salmonella or E.Coli. Generally flour is a raw product that is not subjected to heat treatment to kill bacteria. So if consumed raw there are some risks until it is used and cooked properly.

Dry pet foods and pet treats are around the kitchen and fed to our pets in the same area. The task is often delegated to young people or performed casually without concern. They have been shown to contain some of the same bacteria capable of causing serious problems. Canned pet foods are usually heated and vacuum sealed. Nonetheless they carry similar risks when the unused portions are carried over for the next meal, the next day or even worse, lost in the back of the refrigerator. Pet food manufacturers have recalled products almost three dozen times in the last two years over concerns of salmonella contamination which can adversely affect our pets and us.

What can we do? The four basic rules are clean, separate, cook and chill. Don't forget to wash your hands. The hands are often the contaminators as much as anything else. For more information, visit the government Web site foodsafety.gov. With a small amount of consistent effort you can enjoy a healthy and happy holiday!

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