Be sure to include food safety in your holiday baking and cooking – it could save you a trip to the hospital. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 48 million Americans get sick annually from food poisoning or foodborne illness. That’s about one in six people every year. About 130,000 end up in the hospital, some with permanent disability and 3,000 people die.

Foodborne illness can be caused by:

  • More than 250 diseases that thrive in food
  • Infections caused by bacteria, viruses or parasites
  • Toxins or chemicals that contaminate food and beverages

The most common sources of contaminated food include: raw foods from animals such as raw or unpasteurized milk, undercooked meat or poultry, raw shellfish, and raw or undercooked eggs. Unwashed fruits and vegetables, especially sprouts, are also common sources of illness. However, any food can become contaminated anywhere along the food chain: growing, harvesting, processing, distributing, and when cooking or serving.

Symptoms of foodborne illness

The most common symptoms are nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, diarrhea or fever. Most people return to normal without medical treatment. However, if your symptoms are severe or not getting better, get immediate medical attention. Severe symptoms include high fever (over 101.5 F), blood in stools, unable to keep down water or other liquids because of frequent vomiting (can cause dehydration), diarrhea lasting more than three days, or signs of dehydration. Dehydration symptoms include very little urine output, dry mouth and throat, or feeling dizzy when standing up.

Symptoms can happen quickly – within an hour or two – or take hours or days to develop.

Pregnant women, young children, older adults and anyone with a weakened immune system are at high risk for dangerous complications requiring hospitalization. Foodborne illness can be life-threatening for these groups.

Prevent food outbreaks

Contamination can happen when food is transported, in wholesale or retail storage, by food handlers or in an unsanitary home or commercial kitchen. The recent nationwide E. coli outbreak in Romaine lettuce happened while it was growing, from polluted irrigation water.

Be sure you follow these four most important food safety tips:

Clean your hands, utensils, countertops and cutting boards by washing frequently with hot soapy water – before, during and after cooking and serving. It’s especially important after raw meats touch any of these surfaces.

Separate raw foods from cooked ones when grocery shopping, storage and preparing. Keep raw meats and their juices from touching other foods in your shopping cart, shopping bags and in your refrigerator. Put raw meat on a plate or tray in the frig to catch drips. Use separate cutting boards and plates for raw and cooked foods. Never place cooked food or raw fruits and vegetables on any surface that raw meat has touched. This is called cross contamination.

Cook food to a safe temperature. For example, all whole or ground poultry, leftovers and casseroles must reach 165 degrees to be safe. You’ll need a food or meat thermometer for this. You cannot tell if food is cooked to a safe temperature (high enough to kill germs) by its color, feel, taste or texture. Thermometers are available at grocery or variety stores and priced for every budget. This is an essential tool for your kitchen and will help you produce better and safer foods. Food or meat thermometers with a safe-food-temperature chart printed on the outside cover keeps the process simple.

Chill foods within two hours of being cooked. In hot weather, refrigerate within one hour of cooking. Your refrigerator should always be at 40 degrees or below. Refrigerator thermometers are inexpensive and can prevent wasting expensive food, but only if you check them regularly. Freezers should stay at zero degrees or below.

Observe safe food storage times:

The safe refrigerator-storage times for these foods are:

  • 1-2 days: raw hamburger and other ground meat, sausage and raw chicken or turkey
  • 3-4 days: soups and stews with meat added, and leftovers, pizza, chicken nuggets
  • 3-5 days: egg, chicken, ham, tuna and macaroni salads; fresh steaks, chops or roasts; opened package of sliced deli meat
  • 7 days: opened package of hot dogs, bacon

If you know you won’t be eating a food within the safe-storage times above, put it in the freezer. A zero-degree freezer will keep most foods safe for 1- 4 months.

Foodborne illness sources

According to Medscape, these are the most common sources of foodborne illness:

Salmonella symptoms generally take six to 72 hours to develop. Beef, poultry and eggs are common sources of salmonella infection, and infections are highest in children, nursing home residents and those living in institutions.

E. coli contamination can be found in ground beef and other ground meats, raw milk and fresh produce. E. coli infections usually start three to four days after exposure but may not occur for a week after exposure. Symptoms include fever, bloody diarrhea and dehydration. Avoid medications designed to stop the diarrhea because they reduce the body’s ability to get rid of the poisons.

Campylobacter infections are usually from contaminated chicken – up to 70 percent. A bad stomach ache in the lower right side of your abdomen is usually the only symptom.

Listeria infection can come from processed meats (hot dogs, deli meat), dairy products, unwashed vegetables and seafood. It takes three to 70 days for infection to occur, and symptoms include fever, aches, headache and flu-like problems.

Norovirus is usually the result of unwashed produce, infected shellfish and germs spread by infected food workers. Nausea and vomiting are the chief symptoms, but fever and a fast heartbeat can also occur. Replacing fluids and electrolytes is generally the best treatment for norovirus infections.

Be a food detective

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) serves as the lead coordinator when there is a national foodborne outbreak of any kind. This website links to the CDC’s List of Multistate Foodborne Outbreak Investigations where you can get information and updates about the latest food/beverage outbreaks.

You play a very important role in stopping foodborne illness outbreaks. Finding the cause makes it easier to prevent them in the future. Disease reporting is done at the state level and states voluntarily report outbreaks to the CDC.

  • Always report any illness that you suspect is a result of something you ate or drank to the Arkansas Department of Health, toll-free 1-800-462-0599 or 1-800-633-1735.
  • Contact your doctor about getting tested or if your symptoms are getting worse.
  • Write down what you have eaten in the past 2 to 3 days, and any restaurants or special events you attended. The food that made you sick is rarely the last food you ate.
  • If a health official contacts you to ask questions about an outbreak, take the time to participate.
  • If you want to contact the CDC about a foodborne outbreak, call toll free 1-800-232-4636.


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