We are surrounded by thousands of types of bacteria in our natural environment, and for the most part, no harm comes from interacting with the minuscule organisms. But when certain bugs make their way into food or water supply, they can wreak havoc on the human body with symptoms ranging from slight nausea or cramping to vomiting or, in severe cases, serious illness and even death.
The best ways to avoid foodborne illness or food poisoning are: avoid washing meat and poultry prior to cooking (this is a recommendation of some older recipes, but in fact helps spread any potential bacteria to other surfaces), use a thermometer to ensure food is cooked to the proper temperature (especially poultry and meat), keep leftovers refrigerated at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or colder, and be sure to refrigerate leftovers within two hours after cooking.
Millions of Americans fall victim to foodborne illnesses each year. These are the most common illnesses humans can contract by eating improperly cooked or prepared food.
Listeriosis is less common among the general population, but the infection can sicken older adults and people with weak immune systems. Its primary victims are pregnant women and fetuses. Listeria monocytogenes bacteria are known to cause miscarriages, stillbirths, preterm labor, and serious illness or death in newborns.
The bacteria can grow in refrigerated temperatures where other foodborne bugs tend not to grow and are mainly found in ready-to-eat foods such as hotdogs, deli meat, unpasteurized milk and cheeses, raw sprouts, and raw or undercooked meats. For this reason, pregnant women are advised not to consume soft cheeses and raw milk products.
Vibrio cholerae bacteria infect people through contaminated water, which may make its way into seafood prior to consumption. The symptoms of vibriosis are abdominal pain, vomiting, and watery diarrhea that could lead to severe dehydration and even death.
To avoid contracting vibriosis, ensure proper handwashing when preparing seafood and cook the seafood to at least 145 degrees Fahrenheit. People who are at risk of foodborne illness, such as immuno-compromised individuals, young children, and older seniors should avoid raw or undercooked fish or shellfish. This includes oysters, sushi, sashimi, and ceviche.
6. Clostridium perfringens
Also known as C. perfringens, the bacteria are very common in our natural environment and can multiply quickly in the right conditions. The illness from C. perfringens usually stems from eating foods containing large numbers of the bacteria to produce enough toxin causing abdominal cramping and diarrhea. It grows fastest in large portions of food like casseroles, stews, soups, and sauces that have been sitting at room temperature.
The best way to avoid C. perfringens (also called the "buffet germ" because it is most commonly found on serving lines in cafeteria or buffet-style restaurants), is to ensure food remains above 140 degrees Fahrenheit or cooler than 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Additionally, any foods at room temperature for longer than two hours should be discarded.
Norovirus is one of the most common causes of foodborne illness, spreading easily not only through the consumption of food but also by coming into contact with an infected person. The illness produces symptoms like cramping, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. While anyone can contract the disease, it is most serious for very young children and the elderly.
It is most often found in fresh produce, shellfish, ice, fruit, read-to-eat foods like salads, sandwiches, and cookies that have been prepared with someone infected with norovirus. The best way to avoid spreading norovirus is to not prepare or serve food while feeling ill and to frequently wash hands for at least 20 seconds.
4. Staphylococcus aureus
More commonly referred to as staph, this bug can be found in many types of food, especially items not properly refrigerated or left out for too long at picnics or parties, and causes vomiting followed by diarrhea.
Staph can be found every day on the skin, throats, and noses of healthy people, but will not infect someone unless it is transmitted to food products that encourage the bacteria to multiply and produce toxins harmful to the human body. The most susceptible people to staph aureus are those with conditions like diabetes, cancer, vascular disease, eczema, and lung disease.
Foods most likely to be contaminated are unpasteurized dairy products and salty foods like ham and deli meats, but also salads, cream-filled bakery products, eggs, and egg products like mayonnaise and sandwiches.
The best way to protect against staph aureus is to practice hand hygiene, keep foods at safe temperatures, avoid serving or preparing food when dealing with a nose or eye infection, and do not prepare foods when you have wounds or skin infections on the hands or wrists.
While most foodborne illnesses cause some degree of diarrhea and abdominal cramping, campylobacter is the most common cause. It is most often found on raw poultry but can also live on vegetables and fruits if they are cross-contaminated with raw chicken.
Freezing can reduce the number of campylobacter on food, but it will not kill them completely. Only cooking foods to proper temperatures and reheating thoroughly can eliminate the bacteria, as well as practicing safe food handling habits and washing hands often. Campylobacter most commonly infects infants and young children and is more prominent in summer months.
2. Escherichia coli (E. coli)
Known for the dehydrating diarrhea it causes, most strains of E. coli are found in the digestive systems of healthy humans and animals but some types can become deadly, causing severe and bloody diarrhea and possible kidney failure.
E. coli are large groups of bacteria that can become dangerous in raw or undercooked ground beef, unpasteurized beverages, and dairy products.
The best prevention methods are to ensure ground meat is cooked thoroughly, wash hands regularly when preparing meats, avoid unpasteurized products, keep cooking surfaces clean, and prepare foods on separate cutting boards or countertops to avoid cross-contamination.
Salmonella is one of the foodborne illnesses most warned about. It comes mainly from undercooked or raw poultry and eggs, which is why people are cautioned against sampling their raw cookie dough when whipping up a batch of chocolate chip. The prevalence of the bacteria has made it the top cause of food poisoning in the United States, and it is responsible for more deaths than any other foodborne illness.
Infection symptoms include fever, abdominal cramping, and diarrhea. The best ways to prevent salmonella poisoning are to avoid foods containing raw or undercooked eggs, cook eggs until yolks and whites are firm, avoid eating raw or lightly-cooked sprouts like alfalfa or bean sprouts, always ensure poultry is cooked through, wash produce prior to preparation or consumption, practice good handwashing habits while handling food, and clean kitchen surfaces thoroughly after preparing and cooking foods.
About the Author
Krista Conrad is an award-winning Canadian journalist and creative writer with a BA in English and diploma of Journalism Arts. She loves storytelling and delving into research, particularly in areas of social, historical, environmental and human interest. A busy mom of five, she lives for family and creativity, and enjoys bringing stories and facts to life with firm belief in the power of the written word.
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