Health Department offers tips to avoid foodborne illness

Staff Report

Winnebago County Health Department (WCHD) is reminding residents of how to prevent foodborne illnesses.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 48 million people (one in six Americans) get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die each year from foodborne diseases.

In Illinois, it is estimated that as many as 250,000 cases of foodborne illness may occur each year. However, because these illnesses can be quite mild and because the vast majority of them occur in the home, many go unreported. Yet, foodborne illnesses can lead to serious complications, and even death. Therefore, how you handle food in your home can mean the difference between health and illness.

What is foodborne illness (disease, infection)?

Foodborne illness (sometimes called “foodborne disease,” “foodborne infection” or “food poisoning) is a common, costly — yet preventable — public health problem. Many different disease-causing microbes, or pathogens, can contaminate foods, so there are many different foodborne infections. In addition, poisonous chemicals, or other harmful substances, can cause foodborne diseases if they are present in food.

More than 250 different foodborne diseases have been described. Most of these diseases are infections, caused by a variety of bacteria, viruses and parasites that can be foodborne.

Other illnesses are poisonings, caused by harmful toxins or chemicals that have contaminated the food; for example, poisonous mushrooms.

These different diseases have many different symptoms, so there is no one “syndrome” that is foodborne illness. However, the microbe or toxin enters the body through the gastrointestinal tract, and often causes the first symptoms there, so nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps and diarrhea are common symptoms in many foodborne diseases.

Many microbes can spread in more than one way, so we cannot always know that a disease is foodborne. The distinction matters, because public health authorities need to know how a particular disease is spreading to take the appropriate steps to stop it.

Signs and symptoms of foodborne illnesses

Signs and symptoms of food poisoning vary with the source of contamination, and whether you’re dehydrated or have low blood pressure, or decreased immune system.

Common symptoms of foodborne illness are diarrhea and/or vomiting, typically lasting one to seven days. Other symptoms might include abdominal cramps, nausea, fever, joint/back aches, fatigue and dehydration.

With significant dehydration, you might feel lightheaded, especially when standing, and may have a rapid heartbeat.

What some people call the “stomach flu” may actually be a foodborne illness caused by a pathogen (i.e., virus, bacteria or parasite) in contaminated food or drink.

The incubation period (the time between exposure to the pathogen and onset of symptoms) can range from several hours to one week. Most often, people get sick within four to 48 hours after eating bad food.

Whether you become ill after eating contaminated food depends on the organism, the amount of exposure, your age and your health.

High-risk groups include:

• Infants and young children — their immune systems haven’t fully developed.

• People with chronic diseases — Having a chronic condition, such as diabetes or AIDS, or receiving chemotherapy or radiation therapy for cancer, reduces your immune response.

• Adults — As you get older, your immune system may not respond as quickly and as effectively to infectious organisms as when you were younger.

If you develop food poisoning:

• Rest and drink plenty of liquids.

• Don’t use anti-diarrheal medications because they may slow elimination of bacteria from your system.

• Foodborne illness often improves on its own within 48 hours. Call your doctor if you feel ill for longer than two or three days or if blood appears in your stools.

Call 911 or call for emergency medical assistance if:

• You have severe symptoms, such as watery diarrhea that turns very bloody within 24 hours.

• You belong to a high-risk group.

• You suspect botulism poisoning. In this case, symptoms begin within six hours to 10 days (most commonly between 12 and 36 hours) after eating food that contains the toxin. Symptoms of botulism include double vision, blurred vision, drooping eyelids, slurred speech, difficulty swallowing, dry mouth and muscle weakness that moves down the body, usually affecting the shoulders first, then the upper arms, lower arms, thighs, calves, etc. Paralysis of breathing muscles can cause a person to stop breathing and die, unless assistance with breathing (mechanical ventilation) is provided. Botulism is a potentially fatal food poisoning that results from the ingestion of a toxin formed by certain spores in food.

In the summer between Memorial Day and Labor Day is considered the busiest time for large outdoor gatherings, which almost always include food. Unfortunately, food poisoning is more common in the summer than any other time of year, as bacteria in food multiplies faster in hot, humid weather. With knowing this, how you handle food in your home can mean the difference between health and illness.

The following suggestions will help you to select, store and prepare foods properly (information from the CDC and Illinois Department of Public Health):

Summertime and general food-handling safety tips

The CDC, Illinois Department of Public Health and WCHD encourages individual consumers to take an active role in preventing foodborne infection by following safe food-handling and preparation tips of separating meats and produce while preparing foods, cooking meat and poultry to the right temperatures, promptly chilling leftovers, and avoiding unpasteurized milk and cheese and raw oysters.

Selecting food at the store

• If you have a number of errands to run in addition to shopping for food, be sure to make the grocery store your last stop. If possible, keep a cooler in your car for transporting refrigerated or frozen items. Take food items home immediately and put them in your refrigerator or freezer.

• NEVER leave food in a hot vehicle!

• Check use-by dates and make sure you can use the food by those dates.

• Make sure the food items you buy are in good condition.

• Refrigerated food should be cold to the touch. Frozen foods should be solid. Canned goods should not be dented, cracked or bulging. Produce should appear fresh. Meat should have a good color and be firm to the touch.

Storing food at home

• To keep bacteria from rapidly reproducing, be sure your refrigerator is set at the proper temperature. (If you think your refrigerator is not maintaining the correct temperature, get an appliance thermometer from a hardware store and check the accuracy of the temperature setting.) To keep bacteria in check, the refrigerator should run at 40 degrees Fahrenheit, the freezer unit at 0 degrees Fahrenheit. A good general rule to follow is to keep the refrigerator as cold as possible without freezing milk or lettuce.

• If you don’t plan to use it within a few days, freeze fresh meat, poultry or fish.

• When refrigerating raw meat, poultry or fish, be sure to place the package on a plate so their juices do not drip on other food. Raw juices can contain bacteria.

• Always keep eggs in the refrigerator.

Preparing food

• Be sure to wash your hands in warm, soapy water before preparing food and after using the bathroom, changing diapers and handling pets.

• Kitchen towels, sponges and cloths can harbor bacteria. Wash them often and replace sponges every few weeks.

• Keep raw meat, poultry and fish and their juices away from other food. For example, after cutting up meat or poultry, be sure to wash your hands, the knife and the cutting board in hot soapy water before you start to dice salad ingredients.

• Thaw food in the microwave or in the refrigerator. DO NOT thaw items on the kitchen counter. This allows bacteria to grow in the outer layers of the food before the inside thaws. If you plan to marinate food, do it in the refrigerator, too.

Cooking food

• Thorough cooking kills harmful bacteria. If you eat meat, poultry, fish, oysters or eggs that are raw or only partially cooked, you may be exposing yourself to bacteria that can make you ill. This is particularly important for children, pregnant women, the elderly, and those whose immune systems are compromised by illness or by medical treatment (for example, chemotherapy).

• Use a meat thermometer to ensure meat and poultry are cooked to the appropriate temperature for meat (155 degrees Fahrenheit) and poultry (165 degrees Fahrenheit).

• Salmonella, a bacteria that causes food poisoning, can grow inside fresh, unbroken eggs. Be sure to cook eggs until the yolk and white are firm, not runny. Scramble eggs to a firm texture. Avoid recipes in which eggs remain raw or only partially cooked (for example, mousse, egg drinks, Caesar salad, etc.). Pasteurized eggs or egg substitute can be used instead.

• If you prepare and cook food ahead of time, divide large portions into small, shallow containers and refrigerate. This ensures rapid, safe cooling.

Safe microwaving

• While microwaves are great time-savers, they can leave cold spots in food. Bacteria can survive in these spots.

• Be sure to cover food with a lid or microwave-safe plastic wrap so steam can help to promote thorough cooking. Vent plastic wrap and make sure it doesn’t touch the food.

• Stir and rotate food for even cooking. If your microwave does not have a turntable, rotate the dish by hand once or twice during the cooking time.

• Observe the standing time called for in a recipe or on package directions. During the standing time, the food finishes cooking.

• Use an oven temperature probe or a meat thermometer to check that food is done. Be sure to check several spots.

Serving food

• Never leave perishable food unrefrigerated for more than two hours. Bacteria that can cause food poisoning grow quickly at warm temperatures.

• Always use clean dishes and utensils to serve food, not those you used to prepare the food. If you grill food, serve it on a clean plate, not on the one that held the raw meat, poultry or fish.

• Pack lunches in insulated carriers with a cold pack. Be sure your children know not to leave lunches in direct sunlight or on warm radiators.

• Carry picnic food in a cooler with a cold pack. Try to keep the cooler in the shade and do not open the lid any more than is necessary.

• If you have a party, keep cold food on ice or keep refrigerated until time to replenish platters. If serving hot food, maintain it at 135 degrees Fahrenheit or divide into smaller serving platters, which can be refrigerated until time to warm them up for serving.

Handling leftovers

• Divide large amounts of leftovers into small, shallow containers for quick cooling in the refrigerator. Don’t pack the refrigerator; cool air must be able to circulate to keep food safe.

• With poultry or other stuffed meats, remove stuffing and refrigerate it in a separate container.

Reheating food

• Bring sauces, soups and gravies to a boil. Heat other leftovers thoroughly to 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Microwave leftovers using a lid or vented plastic wrap to ensure thorough heating.

Keeping food

• Never taste food that looks or smells strange. Just discard it. A good rule to follow is — when in doubt, throw it out.

If you suspect a foodborne illness, contact the WCHD at (815) 720-4000. To file a foodborne illness complaint online with the department, go to

From the July 9-15, 2014, issue

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