Taking Precautions Against Foodborne Illness
With the Thanksgiving weekend upon us, and the long holiday season immediately following, it’s a good time to refresh your knowledge about foodborne illness and how to take precautions against it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 6 Americans (approximately 48 million) get sick from contaminated food each year, suffering from mild to severe upset stomach, abdominal pain, diarrhea, fever and dehydration. A century ago, typhoid fever, tuberculosis and cholera were the most common causes of food poisoning. These historic diseases are rarely seen today due to advances in food safety such as milk pasteurization, safer canning methods and cleaner water supplies. Unfortunately, they have been replaced by other foodborne diseases as food is shipped around the world, microbes evolve, and the environment changes.
A recent government study has pointed to salad greens as a leading cause of food poisoning. When other fruits and vegetables are added, almost half of all food poisonings resulted from eating produce in general. The norovirus was the cause of many of these produce-related illnesses, often spread by cooks and food handlers, making the kitchen or restaurant a more likely source of contamination than the food itself.
Poultry Contamination is Less Common But More Dangerous
While illnesses resulting from vegetables were more common, poultry was found to be the most dangerous with the largest percentage of foodborne deaths – about 1 in 5. In the past, red meat caused a scare with a deadly outbreak of E. coli in hamburger. This led to significant improvements in safety measures with respect to handling processes and today beef was the source of a small percentage of food-related deaths and illnesses.
The prevalence of produce contamination, the potential difficulty in maintaining proper temperature control and the fact that numerous people come into contact with serving utensils, if not the food itself, makes it wise to steer clear of salad bar and buffet options.
Be Your Own Food Safety Inspector
In the course of its production and preparation, there are many ways in which food can become contaminated: improper handling, contaminated cooking utensils or being stored at improper temperatures. Therefore, foodborne illness is a serious concern when dining out. The following precautions may be taken to avoid getting sick when going to out to eat:
- Request that meat, poultry and eggs be cooked thoroughly to kill bacteria.
- Inspect food prior to eating to ensure it has, in fact, been thoroughly cooked.
- Observe whether employees demonstrate good hygiene practices and if the restaurant itself is dirty.
- Most establishments train their staff in food safety and many will post its latest health inspection report. If needed, this information can usually be found through the local health department as well.
With no control over the food source and preparation, diners can minimize the risk of contaminated food by being observant, avoiding certain foods and being assertive with food preparation. A restaurant concerned about its reputation and continued patronage will be respectful of diners’ concerns about food poisoning and proper food handling, so never be reluctant to speak up if you feel the food you’ve been served may not have been properly handled or prepared.
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