Take steps against foodborne illness

145836540I got hit with a nasty bug last week, and I wonder if it might have been food poisoning. I’m OK now, but what kinds of food poisoning are most common, and what are the symptoms?

Generally, foodborne illness symptoms can be mild or severe, and include everything from upset stomach, abdominal cramps, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, fever and dehydration.

Many times, it’s difficult even for doctors to differentiate between foodborne illness and other types of gastrointestinal distress. But experts estimate that 48 million Americans each year become ill from contaminated food. So, it’s a good idea to know where it’s likely to come from and to take steps to prevent it.

To keep track of foodborne illness, the Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network (or FoodNet, online at cdc.gov/foodnet) collects information from 10 states accounting for about 15 percent of the U.S. population. The system is designed to determine trends in foodborne illness: which bugs are declining and which are on the rise. The program is a collaboration between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ten state health departments, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, and the Food and Drug Administration.

In the report card for 2013, released in April 2014, FoodNet revealed:

• Cases from Salmonella were down compared with 2010-2012, but this bug still caused the highest number of foodborne illness in the U.S.: 7,277 confirmed cases in the states covered by FoodNet in 2013. There are many different types of Salmonella. The most common type identified — 19 percent of the Salmonella cases in 2013 — was Salmonella enteritidis, associated with raw or undercooked eggs. Salmonella is also commonly associated with raw poultry and other meat, and also unpasteurized milk or juice, cheese, contaminated raw fruits and vegetables (such as alfalfa sprouts, melons), and even spices and nuts.

• Next on the FoodNet list was Campylobacter, which caused 6,621 confirmed illnesses. Campylobacter is also associated with raw and undercooked poultry and unpasteurized milk, as well as contaminated water.

To help prevent foodborne illness, the most important things to do are wash your hands and surfaces thoroughly after handling raw food, and cook meat and eggs thoroughly. For more guidance, seefoodsafety.gov.

Chow Line is a service of Ohio State University’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH, 43210-1043, or filipic.3@osu.edu.

Editor: This column was reviewed by Linnette Goard, field specialist in Food Safety, Selection and Management for Ohio State University Extension, the outreach arm of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.

Keep spreading word on food safety

95019142Due to my work, I have learned a lot about food safety. But no matter what I say, friends and family think I’m too finicky, and they continue to take what I think are unnecessary risks. How can I get my message across?

Don’t be discouraged. It’s often difficult for people to distinguish between words to the wise and the cries of Chicken Little. But at least some of your guidance about practical food safety measures just might sink in over time.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that each year, about 1 in 6 Americans get a case of foodborne illness. Most people recover within a few days, but of those estimated 48 million cases, 128,000 result in hospitalizations, and 3,000 are fatal.

Some foodborne illnesses can cause long-lasting effects, including kidney failure (from some types of E. coli bacteria), chronic arthritis (occasionally from infections from Shigella, Salmonella or Campylobacter), and brain and nerve damage (possible from Campylobacterand, in infants, from Listeria).

So, food safety guidance shouldn’t just be shrugged off. But too commonly, it is. Recent research reveals that 64 percent of families admit to not using a food thermometer regularly to check the temperature of meat and poultry, and 33 percent aren’t using different or freshly cleaned cutting boards to prevent cross-contamination between raw meat and produce.

You might suggest that your friends and family get online and take a look athttp://www.foodsafety.gov, a one-stop shop for food safety-related information from the CDC, the Food and Drug Administration, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. Currently, the site features “Recipes for Disaster,” a new campaign with pointed messages on food safety, co-sponsored by the Ad Council.

Included is a listing of 10 common food safety myths (explaining, for example, why the “smell test” for leftovers doesn’t hold up) and an accompanying list of dangerous food safety mistakes to avoid.

You can also point them to Ohio State University’s Food Safety website athttp://foodsafety.osu.edu. The experts behind that site also offer a food safety hotline at 800-752-2751 (Ohio only) or foodsafety@osu.edu.

Perhaps with the weight of that kind of expertise behind you, your friends and family will begin to heed your warnings. Let’s hope it doesn’t take a case of foodborne illness to do that.


Don’t let doggy bag make you sick

545_4073143 (1)We ate out this weekend, and I got a take-home container for my leftovers. On the way home, we stopped at a store and were there much longer than we anticipated. By the time we got home, it was three hours since we had been served at the restaurant. We refrigerated the leftovers, but should we throw them away instead?

Yes, it’s a good idea to pitch them.

Food safety authorities recommend throwing away food items that have been left out for more than two hours, or for more than one hour if the surrounding air temperature is 90 degrees or above.

At those temperatures, harmful microorganisms can multiply rapidly and can easily get to a point where they can cause illness. Reheating the leftovers would kill bacteria, but some types of organisms that cause foodborne illness can actually produce toxins that don’t go away even if you thoroughly heat the food.

Some people are more susceptible to foodborne illness and need to be especially careful, including:

  • Seniors, because the immune system weakens with age, making it more difficult to combat illness from bacteria and other pathogens. Also, stomach acid tends to decrease with age, which means less is available to reduce bacteria in the intestinal tract.
  • Young children, whose immune systems are still developing.
  • Pregnant women, whose immune systems are altered by the pregnancy. Foodborne illness during pregnancy can not only make the mother ill but can lead to miscarriage, premature delivery, stillbirth, or sickness or death of the newborn baby.
  • People with chronic illnesses, including diabetes. They also have weakened immune systems that could exacerbate problems from foodborne pathogens. People with diabetes are also more likely to have problems with their kidneys, which may hold onto harmful bacteria and other pathogens longer than normal. People with cancer or HIV/AIDS and transplant recipients also need to be especially vigilant.

Even when properly handled, use leftovers within three or four days. It’s always a good idea to label the container with the date to help you remember. When reheating leftovers, make sure they get steaming hot — 165 degrees F throughout. Use a food thermometer. Soups, sauces, gravies and other liquids should be reheated to a boil.

Keep hard-boiled eggs refrigerated

86483922When I was little, my parents hid my Easter basket before they went to bed so I could hunt for it Easter morning. The basket always contained at least one hard-boiled egg. Now we’re told we shouldn’t leave hard-boiled eggs out overnight. There was never a problem before. Why the change?

First, let’s be clear: It’s never been a good idea to keep any perishable food out at room temperature for more than two hours. You can count yourself lucky that you never got sick eating those eggs.

Or, it’s possible you did get sick and never associated the illness with Easter eggs. Some types of foodborne illness take days to develop. You might have mistakenly associated an illness with something you had eaten more recently, or even to a flu bug.

In any case, please set your skepticism aside and pay attention to the experts. Why? Foodborne pathogens thrive in protein-rich foods (like eggs) and can multiply rapidly between 40 degrees and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Just a few cells can proliferate enough to cause illness.

It’s true that when eggs are properly cooked, any bacteria on the shell or lurking inside the egg are killed. But boiling the egg also removes a natural protective coating on the outside of the shell provided by the hen when she lays the egg. When that coating is lost, the shell is more porous, and it’s easier for bacteria to enter the egg simply through regular handling.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has a detailed FAQ about egg safety available at http://bit.ly/FSISeggs. It includes information such as:

  • Hard-boiled eggs spoil faster than raw eggs because of the loss of the outer protective coating during cooking. They should be consumed within a week, while properly refrigerated raw eggs are good for three to five weeks.
  • Fresher eggs are harder to peel when hard-cooked than older eggs. The reason is that an air cell in the large end of the egg between the shell and the membrane grows larger the longer the raw egg is stored. Older eggs float in water because the air cell is bigger.
  • Don’t worry if a green ring forms on a hard-cooked yolk. It’s caused by sulfur and iron compounds in the egg reacting on the yolk’s surface, often because of overcooking. It could also be caused by high iron in the cooking water. It’s perfectly safe to consume.