Can You Avoid Foodborne Illness?

About 48 million people become sick from a foodborne illness every year in the U.S., or about 1 of every 6 Americans, the CDC says.

Many cases are mild, causing simple discomfort up to misery from nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach cramps for 24 to 48 hours. But 128,000 of the people affected need to go to the hospital, and 3,000 die.

Any food can be infected with more than 250 foodborne diseases. Bacteria, parasites, viruses, chemicals, and toxins can contaminate food.

Pregnant women, young children, older adults, and people with a weakened immune system (such as people with diabetes, liver or kidney disease, or HIV or getting cancer treatments) are especially vulnerable.

“People think of foodborne illness as short term, as something that may sicken them for 24 or 48 hours,” says Barbara Kowalcyk, PhD, assistant professor of food science and technology at Ohio State University, Columbus, and co-founder of the Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention. While that may be the extent of it for many, ”there may be long-term health outcomes like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and reactive arthritis that have been associated with foodborne illness.”

While it’s unlikely you can avoid foodborne illnesses entirely, you can greatly reduce your chances by:

  • Knowing which foods are most likely to be affected.
  • Knowing where the most risk lies.
  • Learning safe food-handling techniques.

On the ”Most Likely” List

Foodborne illnesses are linked to certain foods more than others. On the CDC’s most likely list:

  • Chicken, beef, pork, turkey
  • Vegetables and fruits
  • Raw milk, cheese, other dairy products
  • Raw eggs
  • Seafood and raw shellfish
  • Sprouts
  • Raw flour
Food can become contaminated in the fields, during processing, or at other places  in the food production chain. Animal feces may contaminate produce. Poor conditions in a manufacturing plant may allow bacteria to grow. Restaurant workers who don’t wash their hands properly can spread disease. A field irrigated with contaminated water can affect fruits and vegetables before harvest.

Cross-contamination can lead to foodborne illness, too. For instance, if you prepare raw chicken on a countertop, then use the unwashed surface to prepare vegetables, bacteria or other toxins from the raw chicken may contaminate the produce.

Among the common germs leading to foodborne illness are norovirus, salmonella, campylobacter, Clostridium perfringens, and Staphylococcus aureus.

Probably the biggest surprise for most people is that  produce is on the “most likely” list, says Dana Hunnes, PhD, MPH, senior dietitian at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles. “Raw produce is the most common [cause], in my experience, followed by animal protein not cooked to the proper temperature.”

Eating In vs. Eating Out: What’s Riskier?

According to the CDC, foodborne illness outbreaks are more likely to begin at restaurants than at home.

But Hunnes says some foodborne illnesses occurring at home may be mild and passed off as something minor.

To dine out smarter, check a restaurant’s inspection score, which many are now required to post, Kowalcyk says. If you order a dish with eggs, meat, fish or poultry, be sure it’s thoroughly cooked, she says. ”When in doubt, send it back.” And if you send it back, be sure to ask the server also to give you a new, fresh plate with the fully cooked dish, she says.

If an outbreak involves a food from a certain region, ask your server where the ingredients in the dish you want come from. If they can’t tell you, reconsider your order, she says.

Larger chain restaurants tend to be more aware of outbreaks and recalls, Kowalcyk says. “They have food safety staff that are often monitoring.” However, she says, it doesn’t necessary mean they always follow through.

Staying Safe at Home

Staying aware of outbreak and recall news is vital, Kowalcyk says. Once you hear of one, “check the pantry and refrigerator to be sure you don’t have recalled products in your home.”

Kitchen habits count.

  • When preparing meat, poultry, and eggs, always use a food thermometer, Kowalcyk says. She prefers a digital model, which she says is more sensitive. To know the temperature needed to cook different foods thoroughly, refer to this chart.
  • “If you are handling raw eggs, make sure you wash your hands and clean the surface,” Kowalcyk says.
  • If you use a sponge to clean up, ”throw it in the dishwasher daily to sanitize it.” Sponges are an excellent breeding ground for germs, she says.
  • Between handling different foods, wash your hands with soap and water.  “Using a paper towel is best,” Kowalcyk says. “Bacteria that isn’t sticky will come off during the washing, but others will come off with the friction of the paper towel.”
  • “Keep cold foods cold” and vice versa, Hunnes says. “Don’t freeze, thaw, and freeze. Once a food is thawed, use it.”
  • Produce should be washed with soapy water and rinsed well.
  • “Wash all utensils extremely well.”
  • Refrigerate food that is perishable within 2 hours, the CDC says, or 1 hour if the outside temperature is 90 degrees or more.

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Foodborne Shigella Illness Spreading in U.S Says CDC

A general view of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. TAMI CHAPPELL/REUTERS

If you’re planning to travel abroad this summer, be wary of Shigella. The drug-resistant pathogen, a form of food poisoning, is spreading quickly in the U.S. and has been linked to international travel, said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in a study published on Thursday in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

The bacterial illness is extremely contagious, spreading through contaminated water and food. Once contracted, the bacteria spreads to the intestines, inducing vomiting and mucus or bloody diarrhea. Unfortunately, it’s resistant to the most potent available treatment option, Ciprofloxacin, which typically assuages the pain of similar bacterial illnesses.

Experts say that if the resistance continues, Shigella may become virtually untreatable with oral antibiotics. If this happens, antibiotics likely would have to be administered through IV.

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Several outbreaks of Shigella have been reported in recent years, and more than 157 people fell ill during the time of the study, from May 2014 to February 2015. The bacterial strain was detected in 32 states, with sizable numbers of cases in Massachusetts and California.

In the study, researchers discovered that about half of the cases of the foodborne illness had been linked to travel, particularly to Morocco, India and the Dominican Republic. Yet several people who contracted the pathogen hadn’t traveled internationally, leading researchers to believe it may be domestically rooted as well. Authorities caution that the illness has continued to spread since the report was filed.

Researchers advise people to wash their hands often and to be aware of any bowel changes while traveling.

Shigellosis, a full-on infection caused by the bacteria Shigella, afflicts more than 80 million people a year, according to statistics by the CDC, and about 600,000 people a year die from the bacterial disorder.

Prevent the Spread of Norovirus.

Norovirus causes about 20 million gastroenteritis cases each year in the United States. There’s no vaccine to prevent infection and no drug to treat it. Wash your hands often and follow simple tips to stay healthy.

Noroviruses are a group of related viruses. Infection with these viruses affects the stomach and intestines and causes an illness called gastroenteritis (GAS-tro-en-ter-I-tis; inflammation of the stomach and intestines).

Anyone Can Get Norovirus

Anyone can be infected with noroviruses and get sick. Also, you can get norovirus illness more than once during your life. The illness often begins suddenly. You may feel very sick, with stomach cramping, throwing up, or diarrhea.

Noroviruses are the most common cause of gastroenteritis in the United States. CDC estimates that each year more than 20 million cases of acute gastroenteritis are caused by noroviruses. That means about 1 in every 15 Americans will get norovirus illness each year. Norovirus is also estimated to cause over 70,000 hospitalizations and 800 deaths each year in the United States.

Many Names, Same Symptoms

You may hear norovirus illness called “food poisoning” or “stomach flu.” It is true that food poisoning can be caused by noroviruses. But, other germs and chemicals can also cause food poisoning. Norovirus illness is not related to the flu (influenza), which is a respiratory illness caused by influenza virus.

Symptoms of norovirus infection usually include diarrhea, throwing up, nausea, and stomach cramping.

Other, less common symptoms may include low-grade fever, chills, headache, muscle aches, and general sense of fatigue.

Norovirus illness is usually not serious. Most people get better in 1­ to 2 days. But, norovirus illness can be serious in young children, the elderly, and people with other health conditions; it can lead to severe dehydration, hospitalization and even death.

You may get dehydrated if you are not able to drink enough liquids to replace the fluids lost from throwing up or having diarrhea many times a day. Symptoms of dehydration include a decrease in urination, a dry mouth and throat, and feeling dizzy when standing up. Children who are dehydrated may also cry with few or no tears and be unusually sleepy or fussy.

The best way to prevent dehydration is to drink plenty of liquids. Oral rehydration fluids are the most helpful for severe dehydration. But other drinks without caffeine or alcohol can help with mild dehydration. However, these drinks may not replace important nutrients and minerals that are lost due to vomiting and diarrhea.

If you think you or someone you are caring for is severely dehydrated, contact your doctor. For more information on norovirus and dehydration, see norovirus treatment.

Norovirus Spreads Quickly

Norovirus can spread quickly from person to person in crowded, closed places like long-term care facilities, daycare centers, schools, hotels, and cruise ships. Noroviruses can also be a major cause of gastroenteritis in restaurants and catered-meal settings if contaminated food is served.

Norovirus and Food

Norovirus is a leading cause of disease from contaminated foods in the United States. Foods that are most commonly involved in foodborne norovirus outbreaks include leafy greens (such as lettuce), fresh fruits, and shellfish (such as oysters). However, any food item that is served raw or handled after being cooked can become contaminated with noroviruses.

The viruses are found in the vomit and stool of infected people. You can get it by

  • Eating food or drinking liquids that are contaminated with norovirus (someone gets stool or vomit on their hands, then touches food or drink).
  • Touching surfaces or objects contaminated with norovirus and then putting your hand or fingers in your mouth.
  • Having direct contact with a person who is infected with norovirus (for example, when caring for someone with norovirus or sharing foods or eating utensils with them).

People with norovirus illness are contagious from the moment they begin feeling sick until at least 3 days after they recover. But, some people may be contagious for even longer.

Norovirus: No Vaccine and No Treatment

There is no vaccine to prevent norovirus infection. Also, there is no drug to treat people who get sick from the virus. Antibiotics will not help if you have norovirus illness. This is because antibiotics fight against bacteria, not viruses. The best way to reduce your chance of getting norovirus is by following some simple tips.

Stop the Spread of Norovirus

Practice proper hand hygiene

Wash your hands carefully with soap and water, especially after using the toilet and changing diapers and always before eating or preparing food. If soap and water aren’t available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. These alcohol-based products can quickly reduce the number of germs on hands in some situations, but they are not a substitute for washing with soap and water.

Take care in the kitchen

Carefully wash fruits and vegetables, and cook oysters and other shellfish thoroughly before eating them.

Do not prepare food while infected

People with norovirus illness should not prepare food for others while they have symptoms and for 3 days after they recover from their illness.

Clean and disinfect contaminated surfaces

After throwing up or having diarrhea, immediately clean and disinfect contaminated surfaces by using a bleach-based household cleaner as directed on the product label. If no such cleaning product is available, you can use a solution made with 5 tablespoons to 1.5 cups of household bleach per 1 gallon of water.

Wash laundry thoroughly

Immediately remove and wash clothing or linens that may be contaminated with vomit or stool. Handle soiled items carefully—without agitating them—to avoid spreading virus. If available, wear rubber or disposable gloves while handling soiled clothing or linens and wash your hands after handling. The items should be washed with detergent at the maximum available cycle length and then machine dried.






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