The Importance of Understanding Foodborne Illness

What is Foodborne Illness?

Food or drink contaminated by microscopic toxins can create the disease known as foodborne illness. Many different microbes or pathogens can contaminate foods, creating different types of foodborne illnesses. Most often diseases are caused by bacteria, viruses or parasites living on the food or food surfaces.

Symptoms of foodborne illness can include diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, nausea, fever, body aches, and fatigue. Often, what's called a stomach flu is actually a foodborne illness, resulting from contaminated food or contaminated water.

Types of FoodBorne Illness

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According to the U.S. Public Health Service, the most common causes of foodborne infections are the result of the bacteria microorganisms Salmonella, E.Coli and Campylobacter.

  • Salmonella is a bacterium that lives in the intestines of birds, reptiles and mammals. It can be contracted through a variety of different animal food sources such as undercooked chicken or unpasteurized milk. The illness causes fever, diarrhea and abdominal cramps. If a person has a weakened immune system, Salmonella create a life-threating infection by invading the blood stream.
  • E. coli produces a deadly toxin that is the cause of approximately 73,000 cases of foodborne illness each year in the United States. Drinking food or water contaminated with microscopic amounts of cow feces has been linked to the illness. It can cause bloody diarrhea and abdominal pain. In some cases, a complication called hemolytic uremic syndrome can develop. Symptoms can be life threatening and include anemia, intense bleedings and kidney failure.
  • Campylobacter is the second most common cause of diarrhea in the United States. Most raw poultry have the Campylobacter bacteria on it. Eating undercooked chicken, or foods that have been contaminated by raw chicken juices, are the biggest source of infection. Along with the diarrheal symptoms, fever and abdominal cramps can follow.

Another foodborne disease include the Calicivirus (Norwalk-like virus) which is extremely common though not often diagnosed. It causes an acute diarrhea and vomiting. The Norwalk-like viruses is often from direct contact with an infected person. For example, an infected kitchen worker can contaminate the food as they prepare it if they don't take the proper food preparation steps.

Other foodborne pathogens are clostridium botulinum, Listeria monocytogenes, Staphylococcus aureus, Shigella, Toxoplasma gondii and Vibrio vulnificus. Each of these bacterium is found on raw or underprepared food items.

How to Prevent Foodborne Illness

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that approximately 48 million American become ill due to foodborne illness each year. Most of these cases are traced back to restaurants which haven't used proper food handling, food preparation or food storage methods.

Learning the appropriate food safety measures can cut down on the risk of foodborne illness developing. These best practices should be used in every kitchen and bar.

  • Train Staff Thoroughly
Maintaining a health card is legally required when working around food. Staff members will go through health courses to obtain certification to work. These courses detail health topics such as what can cause illness, safe food storage and meal prep.

Additionally, restaurant managers will want to instruct their teams on the specific ways in which the restaurant is following protocol. Educating staff on how foodborne illness can affect the business is never wasted effort. When everyone knows the steps they need to take it keeps food safety standards in check.

  • Avoid Cross-Contaminating
Cross-contamination occurs when microbes transfer from one spot to another. For example, if tainted meat is being prepared and then additional ingredients are handled. These ingredients are then exposed to the bacteria from the meat and become contaminated. The microbes can spread over surfaces as well, leading to foodborne illnesses.

Avoiding cross-contamination during food handling should be a high priority for any restaurant. Kitchen workers should adhere to the strictest guidelines of safe food handling. Meat prep stations should be set-up away from other food prep areas. Sanitizing cutting stations and equipment will also help control cross-contamination.

  • Wash Often
Hand washing may seem like a small task but it's never been more important to control the spread of bacteria. Restaurant managers should stress to employees the importance of washing hands when dealing with food and cutlery.

The Food Modernization Safety Act provides more information to deter the spread of foodborne illnesses. Common sense and practicing to keep areas clean can go a long way to curb the spread and keep customers from getting sick.

How Foodborne Illness Impacts the Economy

Over 76 million cases of foodborne illness are estimated to occur in the US. Mild symptoms are often reported, but the CDC estimates 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths related to foodborne diseases each year in the US. The illness caused economic impacts such as lost wages through reduced sales and job losses.

A staggering $7 billion dollar cost estimate related to food safety incidents in the U.S. This comes as a result of notifying consumers, removing food from shelves, and paying damages from lawsuits.
The massive number of food recalls over the years incurs huge costs to companies. operating expenses.

The United States Department of Agriculture estimated that Salmonella cost the US economy about 3.7 billion dollars, resulting in 1,027,561 illnesses, 19,336 hospitalizations and 378 deaths. This does not include the industry cost, the cost of sales lost because of loss of consumer confidence, recalls, law suits, testing for pathogens and the cost of government agencies investigating these outbreaks.

A large number of programs and essential tools have been put in place to bring down the burden, but restaurants can step up and do their part as well.

Foods that Are High-Risk for Foodborne Illness

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There are an estimated 4.1 million cases of food poisoning every year. Bacteria, chemicals, and toxins are often the culprits in causing illness. However, there are some foods that have a higher risk of bacterial growth than others. If these foods aren't cooked or handled properly, there's a good chance of them causing an illness.

  • Poultry
The bacteria campylobacter and salmonella live on raw poultry. So, if a piece of chicken is under-cooked it can pause on these bacterium and cause foodborne illness to develop. When handling raw chicken and other poultry it's important to sanitize anything used to prep it such as utensils and cutting boards. Wash hands thoroughly after handling the poultry and ensure any meat is cooked all the way through to kill bacteria.

  • Eggs
Eggs are considered a high-risk source for food poisoning. The salmonella in eggs is responsible for many of the foodborne illness cases. Because of their versatility, eggs are used in their raw form to create many popular menu dishes. Any foods that contain eggs, should be cooked thoroughly to destroy the bacteria in the yolk and egg whites.

  • Vegetables
Because vegetables are often eaten raw, bacteria like E. coli can be present. Washing leafy greens and vegetables before use will reduce the risk of harmful bacteria and chemicals that can cause illness.

  • Fruits
The bacteria Listeria can live on the skins of many fruits and berries. Salmonella can also be found on berries, hot peppers and tomatoes. Melons are another high-risk source for developing a foodborne illness because they are often not washed before eating. Thoroughly washing of all fruits, along with proper storage, will minimize the risks of spreading foodborne illnesses.

  • Cheese
The bacteria Staphylococcus aureus can be found in cheese. Its often the result of mishandling where the virus spreads from an infected person to the cheese. Pregnant women are often told to eat soft foods but they should avoid eating soft cheeses due to the high risk of becoming sick. The best way to keep cheese from becoming contaminated is to store it properly and keep all surfaces clean and sterilized before use, including hands.

  • Seafood
Extra care must be taken when handling fish. If a fish isn't stored at the exact temperature recommended, it holds a high risk of becoming contaminated with histamine. Shellfish also carries a higher risk of developing food poisoning due to the toxic algae that the shellfish live in.

Foodborne Illness Myths Debunked

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1. Myth- Smell and appearance can be a way to determine if food is spoiled.
Truth- Even if the food looks and smells fresh, it can still contain the microorganisms that cause foodborne illness.

2. Myth- Foodborne illness can be traced to the last meal eaten.

Truth- Pinpointing the food that caused the illness is difficult. Illness can develop anywhere from 20 minutes after eating or as long as six weeks.

3. Myth- The recovery time of Foodborne illness is fast.

Truth- Depending on the particular pathogen that caused the illness, and the health of the person infected, the illness can either subside within a few days or become more severe to the point of hospitalization.

4. Myth- Only infants and young children get severe cases of foodborne illness.

Truth- High-risk populations such as the elderly, pregnant women, and those with weakened immune systems are the ones who wind up with long-term complications from foodborne illness.

5. Myth- Foodborne illness can't be contracted from another person.

Truth- Foodborne illness carries pathogens, such as Hepatitis A, a serious form of food poisoning that affects the liver. The pathogen is shed from the body of an infected person through the stool and can be spread by unclean hands. This is why proper handwashing is critical to controlling the spread of bacteria.

6. Myth- If food is handled properly, it is safe to eat.

Truth- The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has advised people who are at high-risk for developing foodborne illness to not eat any of the high-risk foods associated with the illness, especially those which are eaten raw like fruits and vegetables.

7. Myth- Foodborne illness only affects pregnant women, not their unborn children.

Truth- Pathogens that cause foodborne illness can harm both mother and unborn child. They cross through the placenta and infect the unborn baby, causing a lot of health problems. Pregnant women need to know the risks and learn how to handle food safely.

Keys to Controlling Foodborne Illness

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  • Understand which foods are most susceptible to common foodborne illness.
  • Following the standards and practices for food handling will help curb the spread of bacteria.
  • Training staff on proper food prep will help keep customers safe when dining.
  • The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that approximately 48 million. American become ill due to foodborne illness each year.
  • Proper health care procedures should be involved in training of the restaurant staff.

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