Keys to Avoiding Food-borne Illness
It is estimated that in the United States, some 76 million illnesses result from food-borne disease each year and that of those cases, 325,000 involve hospitalization and 5,000 end in death.
Globally, careful estimates are harder to come by. However, WHO reports that in 1998, approximately 2.2 million people died from diarrheic diseases—1.8 million of them being children. The report notes: “A great proportion of these cases can be attributed to contamination of food and drinking water.”
Those figures may sound staggering. But should statistics cause you to panic about the safety of your own food? Probably not. Consider another example. In Australia, there are some 4.2 million cases of foodborne illness every year—or about 11,500 every day! Now that may sound like a lot. But look at it from a different perspective. Australians eat about 20 billion meals a year; of those meals less than one fiftieth of one percent lead to illness. In other words, the risk involved in each meal is really very small.
Nonetheless, the risk is real and sobering. What causes food to bring on illnesses, and what can be done to reduce the risk?
Causes of Foodborne Illness
A remarkable number of diseases can be passed along in food—more than 200 of them, says the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases. But the culprits causing all those diseases are not so numerous. According to Dr. Iain Swadling, food information officer for the International Food Information Service, about 90 percent of all cases of foodborne disease are caused by “probably less than two dozen” species of microorganisms. How do the various disease-causing agents—the viruses, bacteria, parasites, toxins, and so forth—find their way into food?
Dr. Swadling lists five of the most common ways that food is contaminated: “Using contaminated raw foodstuffs; infected/ill people preparing meals; inadequate storage combined with preparation of food several hours before consumption; cross-contamination during food preparation; insufficient cooking or reheating of food.” Grim though that list may appear to be, it conveys a potent bit of good news. Most instances of foodborne illness are readily preventable. To see what you can do to ensure the safety of the food you consume, note the box on pages 8 and 9.
Making Balanced Choices
In view of the various risks and concerns about food, some people today decide to take the time to buy, prepare, and eat more fresh food. If that option appeals to you, seek out stores or markets in your area that sell fresh, untreated commodities. One consumer guide explains: “Many consumers seek contact with the producers—either at weekly markets [where fresh produce is sold] or where the food is produced—so as to buy the items when they are particularly fresh and to get a look at the production of the food and its origin.” This practice may be helpful when buying meat products.
In a similar vein, it may be best to purchase local foodstuffs in season, since they may be the healthiest. Realize, however, that if you adhere to such a standard, you will forfeit having a global selection of fruit and vegetables year-round.
Should you switch to organic food? That is a personal decision. Organic food has many enthusiasts, some no doubt motivated by distrust of new technologies used in the food industry. But not everyone agrees that organic farming offers safer food.
Whatever your preferences in food, carefully examine what you buy. “Where food is concerned,” laments one expert quoted in the weekly newspaper Die Zeit, “the consumer looks only at the price.” Being price conscious is laudable, but inspect the list of ingredients as well. It is estimated that nearly half the people buying food in Western lands do not take the time to read the nutritional information printed on labels. Granted, in some lands labeling is not comprehensive. But if you want safe food, then do what you can to examine the ingredients.
Whatever decisions you make regarding the foods you eat, you will probably need to be willing to bend at times, adapting to the realities of the land in which you live. For many people in this day and age, it is simply impossible—too expensive, too time-consuming, too problematic—to make sure that they eat only foods that are verifiably safe in every respect.
Steps You Can Take
Be sure to wash your hands in hot soapy water before preparing each dish. Always wash after using the bathroom, dealing with a baby’s or a child’s hygienic needs (such as changing a diaper or wiping a nose), or handling any animal, including household pets. Wash any utensils, cutting boards, and counter-tops with hot soapy water after preparing each dish—especially after handling raw meat, poultry, or seafood. “Wash fruit and vegetables in lukewarm water,” suggests Test magazine, to get rid of insects and pesticide residue. In many cases skinning, peeling, and boiling are the best ways to cleanse foodstuffs. With lettuce or cabbage, remove and throw away the outermost leaves.
If the internal heat of food exceeds 160 degrees Fahrenheit [70°C], even briefly, almost all bacteria, viruses, and parasites will be killed. Poultry should be cooked even more than that, to 180 degrees Fahrenheit [80°C]. Reheated food should be brought to a temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit [75°C], or it should be hot and steaming. Avoid eating poultry that is still pink inside, eggs with runny yolks or whites, or fish that is not yet opaque and that you cannot readily flake apart with a fork.
Keep foods separate
Keep raw meat, poultry, or seafood separate from other food at all times—when shopping for it, storing it, and preparing it. Do not let the juices flow or drip onto each other or onto other foods. Also, never put cooked food onto a dish that formerly held raw meat, fish, or poultry, unless that dish has been thoroughly washed with hot soapy water.
Store and chill food properly
The refrigerator can inhibit the growth of dangerous bacteria, but the temperature should be 40 degrees Fahrenheit [4°C]. The freezer should be 0 degrees Fahrenheit [-17°C]. Put perishable food items away within two hours. If setting out food before the meal, cover all dishes to keep flies away.
Be cautious when dining out
By one estimate, from about 60 to 80 percent of the cases of food-borne disease in some developed lands originate in meals that are cooked and bought outside the home. Make sure that any restaurant you visit satisfies the health standards required by law. Order meat well-cooked. When it comes to take-out food, make sure to eat it within two hours of the time you buy it. If more time elapses, reheat the food to a temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit [75°C].
Throw out questionable food
If you are in doubt as to whether some food item is good or spoiled, err on the side of safety and throw it out. Granted, it is unwise to waste good food. Still, getting sick from bad food may prove even more costly.