Reducing the Risk of Foodborne Illness
Anyone can become ill from eating contaminated foods. In most instances, healthy adults who contract a foodborne illness will have flu-like symptoms and recover in a few days. However, the dangers associated with foodborne illness are much more serious for immuno-compromised individuals. These include infants and young children; elderly; pregnant women; and individuals with suppressed immune systems due to acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), cancer, or the use of medications that suppress their immune system. For these individuals, the symptoms and duration of foodborne illness can be severe — even life-threatening.
Some basic steps people can take to reduce their risk of foodborne illness include:
• Always purchase foods from approved sources.
• Wash hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds before and after handling food. This is especially important after touching raw animal foods, such as meat and poultry, and before touching ready-to-eat foods such as salad ingredients. Pet owners should wash their hands after handling pets and pet food as both can be potential sources of pathogenic agents.
• Prevent the transfer of pathogens from raw to ready-to-eat foods by cleaning and sanitizing the surfaces of equipment, countertops, and utensils that touch raw food. Use lots of hot, soapy water to clean with and a bleach solution (50 parts per million) to disinfect with.
• Do not thaw frozen raw animal foods at room temperature. The bacteria that cause foodborne illness can grow very rapidly at room temperature. Whenever possible, thaw frozen foods in the refrigerator to retard microbial growth. If time constraints do not permit you to thaw foods in a refrigerator, place the products in a sink and run a stream of cool water over them until they are thawed. Another option is to thaw foods in a microwave oven.
• Food is safely cooked when it reaches a high enough internal temperature to kill the harmful bacteria that cause foodborne illness. Ensure your foods are cooked to the proper temperature by checking the final product temperature with a food thermometer.
• Wash raw produce, especially ready-to-eat fruits and vegetables, to remove soil and other contaminants from their surface.
• Keep cold foods cold and refrigerate leftovers promptly when your meal is finished. Refrigeration slows the growth of harmful bacteria. To promote cooling, place food in shallow pans and break up large food items into smaller portions. Never leave cooked meats and other potentially hazardous foods at room temperature for more than 2 hours.
• Many people are allergic to certain types of foods and ingredients such as milk, eggs, wheat, soybeans, tree nuts, peanuts, fish (e.g., flounder and cod) and crustacean shellfish (e.g., crab, shrimp, and lobster). Read the labels on your food products to know if they contain one of these ingredients and be prepared to share this information with anyone who has a food allergy.
This issue's "Practical Wisdom" – SPEA professor David McSwane, IUPUI. See Prof. McSwane's related article in this issue "Hazardous to Your Health?"