Food-Borne Foes

Is eating that rare steak worth the risk? Meet six of the leading culprits behind contaminated food, where they trhive, and how they can be avoided.

Salmonella

Typically, it is found in undercooked meat, poultry, eggs, and unpasteurized dairy products.

Tell-Tale Signs

Symptoms of Salmonella infection include diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps that develop after 12–72 hours. The illness usually lasts 4–7 days, and most people recover without treatment.

Your Risk

Moderately high. You face a 1 in 144 chance of getting sick from it. Contaminated foods usually look and smell normal.

Protect Yourself

Avoid sunny-side-up or soft-boiled eggs. Eat only well-cooked poultry and meat, including hamburgers, which should not be pink in the middle. Thoroughly wash all produce.

 

Campylobacter

Contaminated water, raw milk, and raw or undercooked meat or poultry can all carry it into the human intestinal system.

Tell-Tale Signs

Campylobacter infection, which usually occurs within 2–10 days after the bacteria are ingested, may cause fever, headache, and muscle pain, followed by diarrhea, stomach pain, and nausea. In some cases physicians prescribe antibiotics when diarrhea is severe.

Your Risk

High. Campylobacter is the leading cause of bacterial diarrhea in North America. With about 2 million cases each year, you have about a 1 in 130 chance of getting sick.

Protect Yourself

The bacteria are easily destroyed by thorough cooking. If there is a chance that your water may be contaminated with this organism, boil it before drinking.

 

Escherichia coli (E. coli)

Most illness from E. Coli has been associated with eating undercooked, contaminated ground beef. Person-to-person contact in families and child care centers is also an important mode of transmission. Infection can also occur after drinking unpasteurized milk or swimming in contaminated water.

Tell-Tale Signs

Severe abdominal cramping and watery, bloody diarrhea are the most prevalent symptoms. Usually little or no fever is present, and the illness resolves in 5–10 days. In some people, particularly children under age five and the elderly, the infection can cause hemolytic uremic syndrome, in which the red blood cells are destroyed and the kidneys fail.

Your Risk

High. It takes less than 10 E. coli organisms to cause a problem.

Protect Yourself

Cook ground meat to a temperature of 70°C at its thickest part (a meat thermometer is a must for this), avoid unpasteurized milk, cider, or juices, rinse produce—especially sprouts—thoroughly, and wash hands carefully.

 

Hepatitis A Virus (HAV)

Water, shellfish, and salads are the most frequent sources, but cold cuts, sandwiches, fruits, fruit juices, milk, milk products, vegetables, and iced drinks are also often implicated in outbreaks.

Tell-Tale Signs

It may take a month after infection for symptoms to develop. These can include fever, fatigue, nausea, jaundice, poor appetite, and abdominal pain.

Your Risk

High, if you dine on raw shellfish. About one in every 1,000 oysters is contaminated.

Protect Yourself

Wash your hands after using the toilet and before preparing or eating food.

Cook shellfish thoroughly.

 

Listeria

This bacteria is found in soil and water, which means vegetables can become contaminated while growing. It also has been detected in a variety of raw foods, such as uncooked meats and fish, as well as in foods that become contaminated during processing, such as soft cheeses, franks, and cold cuts.

Tell-Tale Signs

Infection may cause influenza-like symptoms, including persistent fever and stiff neck, sometimes preceded by nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Symptoms usually appear 3 weeks after infection but can emerge as early as 11 days or as late as 70 days from exposure. Miscarriage and stillbirth are risks for pregnant women.

Your Risk

Generally low, with less than 2,000 cases a year. Almost exclusively strikes pregnant women, newborns, young children, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems.

Protect Yourself

If you’re in a high-risk group, buy only pasteurized dairy products, cider, or juices. Avoid eating any foods after their use-by dates. Heat hot dogs and cold cuts to 75°C before eating. Warm up dips like hummus, too. Wash vegetables thoroughly. Refrigeration does not prevent the bacteria from multiplying.

 

Norwalk Virus 

Raw oysters, cake frosting, and salads, as well as drinking water, have been implicated in outbreaks.

Tell-Tale Signs

Most common are mild and brief nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and/or abdominal pain; headache and low-grade fever may also occur. Severe illness requiring hospitalization is very rare.

Your Risk

High, especially if you eat raw oysters from warm, Southern waters. Only the common cold is reported more frequently than Norwalk virus as a cause of illness in North America.

Protect Yourself

Eat only cooked shellfish and throw away any shellfish that does not open during cooking.

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