Enjoying delicious food is at the center of nearly all holiday celebrations, regardless of social, cultural or religious background. Festive banquets, sumptuous buffets and overflowing dinner tables invite to indulge. However, with so much food put out, there is also a heightened danger of contamination that can result in sometimes serious, even fatal food-borne illness. Whether you eat out in a restaurant, partake in a catered office party or cook up a storm at home, chances are you encounter items that are not agreeable with your digestive system.
Fortunately, most food-borne infections only cause stomach cramps, vomiting and a day or two of diarrhea – but nothing more serious. Still, out of the nearly 50 million Americans who on average fall sick from spoiled food every year, 128,000 were hospitalized and 5,000 died in 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Treating cases of acute food poisoning costs the United States a whopping $152 billion per year in healthcare, missed work and other economic losses, says a report by the Produce Safety Project (PSP), an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trust.
According to the CDC, food-borne illness, also known as “food poisoning,” is a common but largely preventable public health problem. There can be many different kinds of infections caused by a wide range of pathogens that contaminate food. In addition, there are poisonous chemicals and other harmful substances that can do equal damage. Currently, over 250 different food-borne diseases have been identified by the agency. Besides through food, infections can spread through unsafe drinking water, water people swim in, and even person-to-person contact.
Raw animal food products spoil the easiest and fastest. Raw meat, seafood (especially shellfish), poultry, eggs and unpasteurized milk are prime candidates for contamination. The risks multiply when items consist of parts from many individual animals such as ground beef or raw milk that often come from hundreds of different sources.
Fruits and vegetables are also of concern when they are consumed uncooked, unpeeled, unwashed or washed in unclean water. Exposure to fertilizers, especially manure, can result in E. coli and salmonella, to name just two of the most common illnesses. If there are pathogens in or on fruit used for fruit juices, even those can be contaminated if they are not pasteurized.
Contamination can also occur when the people who handle the food don’t take the necessary precautions. Dirty kitchens and unsound cooking techniques are often a cause for food spoilage. And so is improper refrigeration.
While you can only hope for the best when eating out, you can reasonably safeguard your food at home, especially when you are in charge of the kitchen. Here are a few rules you should always observe, according to the CDC:
Cook meats and seafood thoroughly. Even if you like your steak less than well done, make sure it gets exposed to heat high enough to kill bacteria on the outside and avoid contamination of the center from improper handling.
Wash lettuce and all salad ingredients you consume raw in clean water and peel fruits whenever possible.
Always clean hands, utensils, cutting boards, plates and kitchen counter surfaces after they’ve come in touch with raw meat or fish.
Refrigerate perishables as soon as possible and don’t keep them unnecessarily exposed to room temperature during preparation.
If you get sick and have symptoms of food poisoning, see your doctor.
Timi Gustafson RD, LDN, is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun,” which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter (http://twitter.com/TimiGustafsonRD) and on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/TimiGustafsonRD).