Bad Bugs: Facts About Food Safety (Part 1)

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The last thing you want to do is have to worry about becoming ill from something that you ate or drank. But with Hurricane Sandy paving a path of destruction along the East Coast and knocking out power to millions of homes, and with the holidays coming up, it’s a good idea to brush up on keeping your food safe from nasty little organisms that can cause a stomachache, at the least, or lead to something much more serious.

What’s the Big Deal?
Although it seems like food safety has been in the news an awful lot these past few years, the US really does have one of the safest food supplies in the world compared to other countries. But when a foodborne illness (aka, “food poisoning”) strikes someone with a chronic disease like diabetes, it can be quite serious. As if you need a reminder, people with diabetes are more susceptible to infections, and the immune system of a person with diabetes does not always work at full throttle, especially if blood glucose control isn’t quite optimal.

What’s a foodborne illness, you ask? Good question. A foodborne illness is an infection of the digestive tract caused by foods or beverages that contain harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites, or chemicals. About 48 million people in the US get a foodborne illness every year, and about 3,000 people die from one.

Bacterial Illnesses
You’re probably already familiar with some of the bacteria in food that can make you sick. Here are a few of the top contenders:

Salmonella. Found in raw and undercooked meat, poultry, seafood, and dairy foods. Also found in eggs and on egg shells, as well as on fruits and vegetables. A salmonella infection can set in any time between a few hours and several days, and it can last four to seven days, within lingering symptoms sometimes lasting for months. Signs and symptoms include the following:

• Nausea and vomiting
• Abdominal pain
• Diarrhea
• Blood in the stool
• Fever and chills
• Headache

Escherichia coli (E. coli). There are actually several strains of E. coli and only a few cause illness in people. E. coli O157:H7 is the strain that can wreak the most havoc in people. You can become infected with this nasty bug by eating raw or undercooked hamburger, unpasteurized fruit juice, apple cider, or milk, soft cheese, deli meats, and hot dogs. E. coli has also been found on lettuce, spinach, and alfalfa sprouts when they have come into contact with feces of animals or humans. It can also be transmitted from person to person if someone does not wash his hands after using the bathroom. This bacterial strain produces the Shiga toxin, which can lead to the following symptoms several days after coming into contact with the bacteria:

• Nausea and vomiting
• Watery and sometimes bloody diarrhea
• Stomach cramps

Most people feel better after a week. However, a rare but serious complication can occur from an E. coli infection, called hemolytic anemia, which may lead to kidney failure, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Children and the elderly are most susceptible to hemolytic anemia.

Campylobacter jejuni (C. jejuni) Found in raw or undercooked chicken, unpasteurized milk, and unchlorinated water. Unfortunately, between 20% and 100% of chicken sold in stores contains this bacteria. Properly cooking chicken, pasteurizing milk, and chlorinating water kills C. jejuni. C. jejuni is the leading cause of bacterial diarrhea in the US. The infection usually sets in two to five days after ingestion of a contaminated food or beverage. Symptoms include the following:

• Watery and sometimes bloody diarrhea
• Nausea
• Abdominal pain
• Fever
• Headache
• Muscle pain

The infection can last seven to ten days, but relapses can occur. Complications are rare, but may include reactive arthritis, hemolytic uremic syndrome, and Guillain-Barre syndrome, a disorder that involves muscle weakness and paralysis that can progress throughout the body.

Listeria monocytogenes (L. monocytogenes). Found in raw and undercooked meat, deli meats, hot dogs, refrigerated pate, meat spreads or smoked seafood, soft cheeses (Feta, Brie, Camembert, blue-veined cheeses, queso blanco, queso fresco, and Panela), and unpasteurized milk. A listeria infection is called listeriosis. People at high risk for listeriosis include pregnant women, infants, the elderly, people with diabetes, people with kidney disease, and people with AIDS. The concern for pregnant women is that the listeria bacteria may lead to miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth, or infection in the newborn. Symptoms usually set in within a month and include the following:

• Muscle aches
• Fever
• Nausea and diarrhea
• Confusion
• Meningitis

Clostridium botulinum (C. botulinum). Found in improperly canned foods and smoked and salted fish. The same bacteria used in Botox to erase wrinkles can cause a deadly infection called botulism. Symptoms usually appear 12 to 36 hours after eating a food that contains the toxin and include the following:

• Nausea and vomiting
• Weakness
• Dizziness
• Blurry or double vision
• Difficulty talking and swallowing
• Difficulty breathing

Death can occur due to respiratory failure. Obviously, botulism is a very serious and deadly infection. Never eat food from cans or containers that are bulging, swollen or damaged, or that spurt or leak liquid when opened. If you can your own foods, make sure you follow proper canning procedures. Never give honey to children under one year of age, as C. botulinum spores can be found in honey and cause infant botulism.

More next week!

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