When picnic season begins each June, it pays to be a little extra-cautious about foodborne illness. Mom always warned about keeping the macaroni salad on ice and the barbequed chicken out of the sun, and for good reason – food poisoning is no laughing matter. A five-second-rule hot dog could cause a long night in the bathroom. A fly in the bean dip might mean a trip to the emergency room. If your spinach salad carries the wrong microbe strain, or if Grandpa or Junior have trouble fighting off infection, the consequences could even be fatal.
But while we do have to be on guard when we’re out with family and friends enjoying buffet-style picnic foods on a warm summer day, it’s just as important to follow food safety tips at home. In fact, the stats show that foodborne illness in the home is startlingly common. Between 2009 and 2010, up to 21% of foodborne illnesses occurred as a result of food prepared at home, and a 1997 study suggests that homemade burgers could be responsible for up to 80% of E. coli infections.
Foodborne Illness at Home
Monica Reinagel is a board-certified nutritionist who believes that more cases of food poisoning occur in the home than we think. Reporters love to talk about picnic safety because it’s a reliable summer story, but foodborne illness doesn’t just magically direct its evil energies at backyard pool parties and happy families in community parks. You’ve got to take the appropriate steps in your own house as well, and cleaning a refrigerator just isn’t enough. For good food safety at home, you’ve got to keep your entire kitchen clean, and that means sanitizing surfaces (especially cutting boards) and cleaning out appliances.
As a further complication, it’s not always easy to know exactly what’s making us sick. Dr. Theophile G. Koury, an emergency medicine physician in Walnut Creek, California, reminds us that the symptoms of foodborne illness are similar to those associated with the stomach flu or other viruses that can be spread via interpersonal contact. Those same viruses can be transmitted from an infected person to food via unwashed hands, and that contamination will be passed on to whoever ends up with the offending burger or fruit salad on their plate.
5 Signs of Foodborne Illness
But food poisoning caused by bacteria is a separate thing. Pathogenic bacteria can cause miserable nights, socially awkward days and the occasional trip to the hospital, and they’re constantly floating around your kitchen. Cleaning a refrigerator or countertop might help, but these germs can be stubborn. The thing to remember is that while such nasties normally do no harm, under the wrong conditions they can thrive and wreak havoc with your system. Here are five ways to tell that you may have been poisoned by one of these bacterial baddies.
1. Fast-onset vomiting. If you have reason to suspect you’ve eaten contaminated food and you experience nausea and vomiting within the hour, you may have ingested a staphylococcal toxin. These are toxins released by the Staphylococcus aureus bacteria, and they can also cause diarrhea and stomach cramps.
2. Running hot and cold. Are you experiencing chills and a fever along with diarrhea? There are a number of distinct bacterial causes, including salmonella or shigella infection.
3. Difficulty seeing, breathing and swallowing. We all remember the warnings about bulging or dented cans, and for good reason: these damaged canned goods are one common source of foodborne botulism. The warning signs of botulism include troubles with vision (including double-vision and blurring), facial weakness, problems speaking and swallowing, paralysis and nausea. These warning signs should be taken seriously. Immediate medical care might be required.
4. Bloody diarrhea. An E. coli infection is also serious business. That’s not to underestimate the possible consequences of salmonella infection or staphylococcal toxin, but E. coli can cause kidney failure and, in severe cases, death. Diarrhea that becomes progressively bloodier can be a sign of E. coli, although this symptom may not always be present. And even though diarrhea with blood can be a consequence of other types of bacterial infection, it is a symptom that should not be ignored.
5. Tingly hands and feet. Tropical fish are the source of ciguatera poisoning, symptoms of which include vomiting and diarrhea within the first day, followed by aching muscles, itching, numbness around the mouth and tingling limbs. Disease-carrying fish have ingested large quantities of a toxin produced by algae found in tropical reefs. The ciguatoxin cannot be destroyed by cooking infected fish – the only way to fight it is to avoid eating the fish that carry it in the first place.
Foodborne Illness or Food Sensitivity?
The tricky thing about food poisoning (well, ONE of the tricky things about food poisoning) is that many of these symptoms can be attributed to other causes, and that’s why confirming foodborne illness usually requires the help of a doctor. It might take blood work or even a stool culture to identify the specific cause, and even when food poisoning is singled out, there is often no way to tell which meal was the culprit.
Chronic sufferers of fatigue, headache, joint pain, gas, nausea and diarrhea might be tempted to blame their symptoms on repeated instances of foodborne illness, but if you suffer often, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re failing to clean produce thoroughly. Doctors Lauren Russel and Jonathan V. Wright, of the Tahoma Clinic near Seattle, point out that these symptoms and others might simply mean that you’re eating the wrong foods.
Food allergies and food sensitivities occur when your body is sensitive to some chemical component of the food you’re eating. Maybe it’s a man-made chemical introduced during food processing, or it could be that nuts, gluten or otherwise “normal” foods set off your body’s immune system. In fact, it’s even possible to suffer a food allergy or food sensitivity for years without realizing it. Russel and Wright estimate that up to 60% of undiagnosed conditions might be attributed to the body’s rejection of otherwise healthy foods.
If you suspect that a chronic condition might be the result of food sensitivity or an allergic reaction to your groceries, there are several ways to find out which foods are to blame. Toronto-based nutritionist Jane Durst Pulkys describes methods that have been available for many years – such as the “skin prick test” and the elimination diet – but she also notes a more modern testing possibility. The ELISA test requires only that a health professional “draws four drops of blood from your finger and has [the blood] tested for 96 different foods.” You’ll get a unique report that shows exactly which of the foods you’re sensitive to, as well as the degree of sensitivity.
Food Safety at Home Helps Prevent Foodborne Illness
As for foodborne illness, keeping your kitchen clean should be the standard operating procedure. Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds before prepping a meal. Make sure that your refrigerator is colder than 40°F. Disinfect your kitchen with bleach, vinegar or hydrogen peroxide every so often. When you perform these tasks regularly, you’re doing a lot to help prevent foodborne illness in your home.
But you can take it a step further. You can think like a germ.
Patti Waller, an epidemiologist at Marler Clark law firm, points out areas in your kitchen that deserve special attention when sanitizing. As you might expect, thoroughly cleaning a refrigerator is a great way to combat disease. But do you normally take time to scrub your can opener? What about your ice dispenser, or the rubber gasket at the bottom of your blender? As Waller points out, germs just love to hide in these places.
As Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s greatest ever non-Presidents, once said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” And he’s right: a little vigilance, in the kitchen or elsewhere, goes a long way. Nobody really likes to scrub and clean produce, but would you rather be stuck in the restroom for days on end because a microscopic fiend really digs your food storage system? Of course not. Practicing food safety at home will save you and your loved ones from sleepless nights and exhausted days, and that’s why you should do it.
Ol’ Ben wasn’t perfect. He thought our national bird should be the turkey. But when you think about his quote in the context of food safety, you’ll see just how far-reaching his wisdom really was. The aphorism shows up everywhere because it’s true – and perhaps never more so than when the “cure” is a trip to the emergency room and the price of prevention is a bar of soap.
It’s okay to talk about your experience with foodborne illness in the comments section below. Just remember that the Internet is a public place!