The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that each year, approximately 76 million people in the U.S. get sick from contaminated food, resulting in 325,000 hospitalizations and about 5,000 deaths. Food safety is a worldwide public health issue, and everyone is at risk for foodborne illness. While most cases of foodborne illness, commonly known as “food poisoning,” are not serious, the condition can be serious or even fatal for at-risk populations including children, pregnant women, the elderly, or those with weakened immune systems or chronic illnesses. Unsafe foods can include foods that are contaminated with pathogenic (infection-causing) bacteria, food products with undeclared allergens, and foods with toxic levels of certain chemicals or metals.
If contaminated food is consumed, foodborne illness, or “food poisoning,” may result, with symptoms developing as soon as 30 minutes or as late as two weeks after ingesting the food. While there are many different kinds of foodborne illness, common symptoms include upset stomach, diarrhea, dehydration, vomiting, fever, and cramps. Symptoms can last from a few hours to a few days and can range from mild to severe. Foodborne illnesses can be fatal in certain at-risk populations, including children, pregnant women, the elderly, or people with weakened immune systems.
Foods can be contaminated with viruses, parasites, or two kinds of foodborne bacteria, including the kind that simply spoils food or the kind that can make you sick. Some bacteria occur naturally in foods and are destroyed during the cooking process, while other bacteria are found on hands, dirty surfaces, in slaughterhouses, or through cross-contamination of uncooked foods. If food is not stored properly or cooked at proper temperatures, microscopic bacteria can grow rapidly on the food and cause foodborne illness when consumed. Examples of bacteria that are often the cause of foodborne illness include:
Many cases of foodborne illness are preventable if proper food preparation and cooking methods are utilized. Keep in mind the following tips when buying, preparing, cooking, and storing foods:
And remember, bacterial growth happens fastest at temperatures between 40 degrees and 140 degrees, so keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) outlines certain standards for minimum cooking temperatures of foods to ensure bacteria is killed during the cooking process. The standards consist of:
When grilling and cooking outside, remember the following tips to keep foods safe:
If there is reason to believe a certain product may have been contaminated or misbranded, manufacturers or distributors can issue a voluntary food recall to protect consumers from harmful products. However, food recalls are often issued too late, after hundreds or thousands of contaminated products have already been sold or consumed. Foods that are often recalled include peanut butter and other nuts, beef, prepackaged lettuce, products with undeclared allergens, and more recently, foods with certain contaminated ingredients such as hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP).
The FSIS estimates that in the past five years, approximately 61.8 million pounds of beef have been recalled for possible E.coli contamination. Beef can also be recalled if inhumane treatment of cattle is discovered, or in cases where there is a suspicion of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease.
An estimated 30,000 Americans require hospitalization each year as a result of allergic reactions from food, with 150 deaths reported. Allergic reactions to food most often occur when food packaging incorrectly identifies the presence of certain allergens as ingredients, such as milk, nuts, egg, soy, wheat, fish, or shellfish. Over the past decade, an average of five products per week have been recalled due to undeclared allergens, according to an investigation by the Chicago Tribune. The foods most often recalled include cookies, candy, and ice cream.