Ah, the holidays.
Parties, festive drinks, great buffets, and… food poisoning?
Yep. One in six Americans get sick each year from what’s commonly referred to as food poisoning, according to a new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Another 3,000 die annually from food bourne illnesses. The data in this report is being hailed by researchers and experts as the most accurate knowledge available in over a decade, and is the first study to focus solely on food eaten in the U.S.
About 48 million people become ill from food borne pathogens annually, only about a fifth of these illnesses are pinpointed to known culprits. The rest are either unspecified, unrecognized as causing food illnesses, or undiscovered. It’s not just eating out that can cause people to become ill – improper storage, preparation, or cleanup can create serious problems at home too.
Most food bourne illnesses cause nasty effects such as vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, headaches, dehydration and fever. While most of us are able to get over these symptoms with a few days’ rest, some people wind up in the emergency room with serious manifestations, and others will die from something as simple as an undercooked burger.
WebMD notes that the most common causes of food related illnesses are raw meat, chicken, fish, and eggs. Dirty water, sometimes found near irrigation ditches, can also contribute to bacteria on fruits and vegetables; chefs, servers, or other food handlers who don’t wash their hands thoroughly enough to kill germs can also be culprits.
Among known pathogens, the CDC says that:
- Salmonella was the leading cause of estimated hospitalizations and deaths, responsible for about 28 percent of deaths and 35 percent of hospitalizations due to known pathogens transmitted by food.
- About 90 percent of estimated illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths were due to seven pathogens: Salmonella, norovirus, Campylobacter, Toxoplasma, E.coli O157, Listeria and Clostridium perfringens.
- Nearly 60 percent of estimated illnesses, but a much smaller proportion of severe illness, was caused by norovirus.
Of course, prevention begins with education. There is new food safety legislation on the horizon that will create stricter standards for handling and serving. Meanwhile, anyone that handles food – from the farm to the table –needs to be aware of this serious problem.
During the holidays, many of us are party-hopping, dining out, and likely not paying close enough attention to what we’re eating. It could be the shrimp salad that was left out too long. Or the knife that wasn’t cleaned well after cutting raw chicken; or the countertop that wasn’t disinfected after prep, or the eggs that might have been delivered to the supermarket already tainted.
When at home, take precautions such as separating meats and produce while preparing foods, cooking meat and poultry to the right temperatures, and chilling leftovers promptly. When dining out or at parties, avoid unpasteurized milk and cheese, and raw oysters. Make sure that cold food is really cold (under 40 degrees F), and hot food is really hot (above 140 degrees F, says WebMD). If you’re not sure, take a pass.
Children, pregnant women, and people with chronic diseases such as diabetes, are more susceptible to certain effects and should be watched closely for symptoms. If you suspect serious food bourne illness among anyone in these groups, call the local poison control center or 911.
The full report from the CDC is available online at http://www.cdc.gov/eid.
Take a few simple precautions when it comes to food this holiday season – and please remember, don’t drink and drive!