Foodborne illness prevention has become a top-of-mind concern for many individuals and families. With recent reports linking foodborne illnesses and deaths to listeria and botulism, there is good reason to be aware and well-informed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 1 in 6 Americans, or approximately 48 million people, get a foodborne illness every year after consuming contaminated foods or beverages. Most foodborne illness symptoms are mild, however, in some instances they may lead to hospitalization and possibly death.
No doubt, foodborne illness is a common public health problem. Fortunately, it is also one of the most preventable. How can you protect yourself without avoiding the foods that you love? Matthew B. Ajluni, DO, an osteopathic family physician from Ann Arbor, Mich., provides preventive measures that every family can take to safeguard their health.
Foodborne Illnesses: How to Protect Yourself
According to Dr. Ajluni, there are more than 250 different foodborne diseases. Most are infections, caused by a variety of bacteria, viruses and parasites that can be foodborne. Others are poisonings, caused by food contaminated with a harmful chemical. With so many foodborne illnesses, it may seem like a daunting task to stay healthy.
“However, it’s not impossible if you take the right precautions,” says Dr. Ajluni. “Stay on top of CDC alerts announcing food recalls, learn the common signs of foodborne illness, and practice good judgment when it comes to food preparation and consumption.”
General Guidelines to Prevent Foodborne Illness
With so many foodborne illnesses, how can you avoid them? Dr. Ajluni recommend taking the following measures:
Check the CDC website for recalled products or check www.foodsafety.gov
Dispose of any recalled products, even if no one has become ill.
Place the product in a closed plastic bag and in a sealed trash can to prevent other people or animals from eating it.
You are at greater risk of getting a foodborne illness if you have a weak or developing immune system. Pregnant women, young children, the elderly and individuals with chronic health conditions should take special care in avoiding foods that may contain harmful bacteria. Dr. Ajluni advises against eating:
Raw or undercooked meat, seafood or poultry.
Raw shellfish (including oysters, clams, mussels and scallops) and their juices.
Unpasteurized (raw) milk and products made with raw milk, like yogurt and cheese.
Raw or undercooked eggs or foods containing raw or undercooked eggs, including certain homemade salad dressings (such as Caesar salad dressing), homemade cookie dough and cake batters, and homemade eggnog.
Unwashed fresh vegetables, including bagged lettuce or salads
Unpasteurized fruit or vegetable juice, refrigerated pates or meat spreads.
Hot dogs, luncheon meats (cold cuts), fermented and dry sausage, and other deli-style meats, poultry products, and smoked fish – unless they are reheated until steaming hot.
Raw sprouts (alfalfa, bean or any other sprout).
“Overall, symptoms of foodborne illness usually appear 12 to 72 hours after eating contaminated food, but may show up in as little as 30 minutes or up to four weeks later,” explains Dr. Ajluni. “While there are not general symptoms for foodborne illnesses, there are specific symptoms associated with certain ones.”
A Closer Look at Listeria and Botulism
There are many opportunities for food to become contaminated as it is produced. Without the proper care and checks, everyday foods can become a hazard to your health. What is your best point of defense? “Start by staying on top of food recalls and reported symptoms,” suggests Dr. Ajluni.
With listeria and botulism - two foodborne illnesses that have dominated the headlines - there are key symptoms that should ring the alarm. With listeria, a serious, life-threatening infection caused by eating food contaminated with the bacterium (germ) Listeria monocytogenes, symptoms can range from mild to severe. The bacteria can cause high fever, nausea, abdominal pain and diarrhea, and in severe cases, it can also cause miscarriages and stillbirths in pregnant women.
“The faster you can identify these signs, the faster you can receive the proper treatment and increase your chance of avoiding major complications,” says Dr. Ajluni. “Similarly, with botulism, the signs are distinct and worth noting.”
Botulism is a rare, but serious illness caused by a germ called Clostridium botulinum. The germ, found in soil, can survive, grow and produce toxin in a sealed jar of food. Symptoms may include double or blurred vision, drooping eyelids, slurred speech, difficulty in swallowing, dry mouth or muscle weakness. Botulism is a medical emergency. Left untreated, it can cause paralysis, nerve damage, and in rare instances, death.
“If you have symptoms of foodborne botulism, seek medical attention immediately,” stresses Dr. Ajluni. “Home-canned vegetables are the most common cause of botulism outbreaks in the United States."
If you’re a fan of home canning or consuming these goods, he recommends discarding the canned good if:
The container is leaking, bulging or swollen.
The container looks damaged, cracked or abnormal.
The container spurts liquid or foam when opened.
The food is discolored, moldy or smells bad.
To avoid food contamination, Dr. Ajluni urges all avid canners to utilize:
Proper canning techniques. Make sure your food preservation information is current with up-to-date scientifically tested guidelines, which can be found in publications such as The USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning.
The right equipment for the type of foods you are canning. Always use a pressure cooker, since pressure canning kills the germs that cause botulism. Avoid boiling water canners, since they don’t protect against botulism poisoning.
Better Safe, Than Sorry
When it comes to food safety, trusting your instincts and taking the appropriate precautions is important.
“If you have suspicions about any kind of food, do not eat it,” advises Dr. Ajluni. “If you’re unsure whether a canned good underwent proper canning guidelines, throw it away. If you suspect you have a foodborne illness, contact your physician right away. Trusting your instincts could save your life.”