Foodborne Illness: Are You at Risk?

Linda Benedict  |  4/28/2006 2:16:45 AM

Evelina Cross and Maren Hegsted

Although Americans enjoy the safest food supply in the world, several recent outbreaks of foodborne illness have heightened concern about food safety.

In the United States, between 6.5 million and 81 million cases of foodborne illness and as many as 9,100 related deaths are reported annually. In addition, the risk of incurring foodborne illness is increasing because of more large-scale production and distribution techniques that allow contaminated products to reach more individuals. The number of people in high risk groups such as those with suppressed immune systems and the elderly is increasing also. Children are more at risk because more of them spend significant amounts of time in group settings.

In addition, bacteria have found new modes of transmission. Some are more resistant to long-standing food processing and storage techniques. Virulent strains of well-known bacteria have emerged. The exact cost of foodborne illnesses is unknown, but estimates of the cost of medical treatment and lost productivity may be as much as $5 billion to more than $22 billion annually.

Contamination Sources
Although more than 30 pathogens are associated with foodborne illness, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) considers E. Coli 0157:H7, Salmonella Enteritidis, Listeria monocytogenes and Campylobacter jejuni the most impor tant. The most common carriers are foods of animal origin such as beef, pork, poultry, eggs and seafood products. But many other foods, including milk, cheese, ice cream, orange and apple juices, cantaloupes and vegetables, have been involved in outbreaks during the last decade. The sources of contamination of food by the four pathogens identified by the CDC are in Table 1.

Although foodborne illnesses are of short duration and do not require medical treatment, serious complications and death can result. E. Coli O157:H7   can cause kidney failure in young children and infants. Salmonella can lead to reactive arthritis, serious infections and deaths. Listeria can result in meningitis and stillbirths, and Campylobacter can cause arthritis, blood poisoning and be a precipitating factor for Guillain-Barre syndrome.

According to the CDC, 97 percent of foodborne illness can be prevented by improved food handling practices such as proper cooking and storage of food and appropriate personal hygiene practices by food handlers. Since bacteria are found naturally all around us, safe handling is necessary to prevent the bacteria from multiplying and causing foodborne illnesses.

One of the most important factors in controlling bacterial growth is temperature. Most foodborne outbreaks in the United States are the result of improper temperature control. Heating food to a specified temperature and maintaining that heat for a given time, depending on the food, will destroy most microorganisms. The general rule is to heat foods above 140 to 170 degrees F or out of the “danger zone” where bacteria multiply rapidly.

Avoiding cross contamination of foods also is essential to safe food handling. To prevent cross contamination, all hands, utensils and surfaces touching raw food should be thoroughly washed and sanitized before being used again for either raw or cooked food. This includes tabletops, cutting boards, knives, forks and slicers as well as aprons, cleaning cloths and sponges.

Personal Hygiene
The personal hygiene practices of food handlers are critical to preventing foodborne illness. Hands should be washed frequently, especially before handling food, after touching raw meat or eggs, after using the restroom, sneezing or handling garbage.

When shopping for food, consumers are advised to notice the “sell by” and “use by” dates to be sure they have not expired. The “use by” date applies to use at home. Both labels refer to the quality of the food and are not a guarantee of an uncontaminated product. Examine the packaging of the items, and do not select those with holes or tears. Cold food items should be kept cold, and frozen foods frozen solid. When possible, place raw poultry, meat or fish in separate plastic bags to ensure that they do not leak and contaminate other unprotected foods. Plan to select perishable food items, especially meats, just before leaving the store to reduce the time the food is at room temperature. If groceries must be left in the car for longer than 30 minutes, use a cooler to transport perishables home.

Upon arriving at home, place perishable foods immediately in the refrigerator or freezer. Be sure the refrigerator temperature is at 35 to 40 degrees F. Store uncooked meat, fish and poultry products on a plate on the lowest shelf of the refrigerator so raw juices do not drip on other foods and contaminate them. Always defrost meat, poultry or fish in the refrigerator or under cold running water because bacteria multiply rapidly at temperatures between 40 to 140 degrees F.

Keep Clean
Keep everything that touches food clean. Wash hands with hot, soapy water before preparing any food and after handling raw meat, poultry and fish. Use separate platters, cutting boards, trays and utensils for cooked and uncooked meat, poultry and fish. Prevent juices from raw meat, poultry and fish from coming into contact with any other foods, either cooked or raw. Always wash contact surfaces and utensils with hot, soapy water immediately after preparing these products. Use separate cutting boards for each food type. Never use the same board for raw meat or poultry and then for cooked or ready-toeat foods. Cutting surfaces can be sanitized by washing with a solution of two or three teaspoons of household bleach in one quart of hot water, then rinsing with plain, hot water. Direct sneezes and coughs away from food and preparation areas, and wash hands after sneezing or coughing. Wash all produce thoroughly with clean, drinkable water.

Cook ground meats thoroughly to an internal temperature of 160 degrees F or until the juices run clear. Ground poultry should be cooked to at least 165 degrees F. Cook beef to at least 145 degrees F, pork to 160 degrees F and poultry to 170 degrees F. Do not cook dressing in the cavity of the bird; instead, cook it separately. Do not partially cook food to finish later. A temperature high enough to destroy bacteria may not be reached with partial cooking and will allow bacteria to multiply rapidly.

Never leave cooked meat or other perishable foods at room temperature longer than two hours. Keep all cold foods at temperatures below 40 degrees F and hot foods at an internal temperature of at least 140 degrees F. Freeze or refrigerate leftover foods immediately. Cut large portions in smaller portions to speed cooling time, and, to speed cooling, use small, shallow containers. Always reheat leftovers to at least 165 degrees F. Sauces and gravies should be reheated to a rolling boil for at least one minute before serving.

When in doubt, throw it out!
Consistently following these rules for safe handling, preparing, storing and reusing foods will greatly reduce the risk of foodborne illness for you and your family.

For more information about food safety, contact:
USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline
Monday through Friday,
9 a.m. to 3 p.m. central time
(800) 535-4555

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Foodborne Illness Line
24-hour recorded information
(404) 332-4597

National Cattlemen’s Beef Association

USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service 
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