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An Unwelcome Dinner Guest:

Avoiding Foodborne Illnesses

"Something I ate," or "food poisoning," or maybe just "stomach flu," is how we sometimes describe foodborne diseases. While symptoms vary, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and fever are typical; these symptoms usually begin several hours to a day or more after eating tainted food. Foodborne illnesses are common. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has estimated that at least 6 million cases occur annually in the United States; the true number may be much larger. While most of these distressing illnesses are not life threatening, an estimated 9,000 do lead to death each year. Some people are especially vulnerable, including people with immune disorders (such as HIV infection), cancer, and the elderly. Fortunately, nearly all foodborne diseases are preventable.

There are many agents that cause foodborne illness. The majority are bacteria, with names like Salmonella, the E. coli O157:H7 strain, Listeria, Campylobacter, and Vibrio. Some are viruses, including hepatitis A. Some cases result from bacterial and other toxins, like Staphylococcus enterotoxin or the toxin of botulism. And a small number of cases result from parasites. Bacterial contamination in animal products accounts for most cases of foodborne illness in the United States. Animal products that carry a risk of illness include undercooked or raw meat, seafood, and eggs, as well as unpasteurized milk and other dairy products. Vegetables and fruit usually carry a much smaller risk of causing illness, unless they are contaminated with uncooked animal products or have been washed with unsanitary water.

Several simple measures can greatly reduce your risk of foodborne illness:

Refrigerate or freeze poultry, meat, fish, eggs, and dairy products products right away after purchase and keep cold until ready for cooking.

In the kitchen, keep everything clean--including the cook’s hands! Washing hands thoroughly with soap and warm water before preparing food does make a difference. To avoid contaminating other foods, carefully wash hands, knives, utensils, and cutting boards immediately after handling any raw poultry, meat, or fish. Never prepare salads or fresh produce on a cutting board that has not been cleaned. And be sure to keep dishcloths, sponges, and kitchen towels clean.

Thoroughly wash and rinse fresh fruits and vegetables in warm water.

Do not put cooked meat on an unwashed plate or platter that has held raw meat.

Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. After cooking, do not let food stand more than one or two hours before the leftovers are refrigerated. Refrigerated leftovers should be used within three days.

And never taste food to see if it might be spoiled. This applies to leftovers or any food in swollen, or leaky cans. If in doubt, throw it out.

Unfortunately, it is popular to serve some foods without adequate cooking. We recommend special precautions with the following:

Avoid rare hamburger. With proper refrigeration, bacterial contamination usually does not penetrate far into steaks or other large pieces of meat. Cooking the outer part of the steak kills these bacteria, even if the deeper, uncontaminated parts are still rare. But with ground meat such as hamburger it is different. Hamburger can be contaminated with bacteria mixed throughout meat, and if the hamburger is served rare, bacteria in the center may survive to cause disease. A number of fatal illnesses from the E. coli O157:H7 strain have been attributed to contaminated hamburger served rare.

Avoid raw oysters. Restricting raw oyster consumption to those harvested from state-inspected and approved oyster beds may reduce the risk of foodborne illness, but does not eliminate that risk. Oysters that are sautééed, baked or boiled until plump are much safer.

Avoid raw fish or fish served rare. In addition to bacterial illness, fish may occasionally transmit parasites. Seafood should be thoroughly cooked.

Eggs should be cooked until the white is firm and the yolk begins to harden. Avoid foods containing raw eggs, such as homemade ice cream, cookie dough, cake batter, mayonnaise, and eggnog, because they carry a Salmonella risk. Commercial products are usually safer because the eggs have been pasteurized.

Finally, avoid unpasteurized milk and dairy products.

We have a few parting tips:

Outbreaks of severe, sometimes fatal illness from E. coli O157 have increased in recent years. While usually associated with undercooked meat, especially rare hamburger, some cases of this illness have also been traced to unpasteurized apple cider and to contaminated alfalfa sprouts.

Don't thaw meat and other frozen foods at room temperature. Instead, move them from the freezer to the refrigerator for a day or so.

When it comes to food safety, remember that the saying "rules are made to be broken" does not apply!

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