Foodborne illness is in the news lately, but it’s something you should always be aware of, not just when there’s an outbreak. In the United States, there are around 75 million cases of food poisoning every year, resulting in 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths, but very few of these are part of outbreaks, when many people get the same infection or illness from food from the same source.
There are more than 250 types of foodborne illness, including:
- Norovirus, the most common foodborne infectious agent in the United States
- Salmonella, the second most common food-poisoning pathogen, the most fatal, and one of the best known
- The bacterium Escherichia coli, another well-known infectious agent
- Campylobacter jejuni, a cause of Guillain-Barré syndrome
- Aflatoxins, which can cause cirrhosis and other liver diseases
- Ergot, a mycotoxin which grows on grain and can cause hallucinations and seizures
- Hepatitis A and E
- Parasites such as tapeworm
These and their friends can all be avoided by taking reasonable precautions. If food look, smells, or otherwise seems to be spoiled or rotten—for example it is discolored—don’t eat it and don’t cook with it. Pay attention to food recall notices and to warnings at your grocery store. If you didn’t buy it at room temperature, if you’ve opened the package, or if the package says to keep it refrigerated, store it below 38 degrees Fahrenheit; frozen food should be kept below 0 degrees Fahrenheit. Keep meats away from other foods in your shopping cart and store them on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator, also away from other foods. Wash surfaces immediately if raw meat has been on them, and remember that some types of pathogens can be found on grains or leafy vegetables.. Cook food thoroughly—most pathogens die at 140 degrees Fahrenheit, but not instantly; 160 degrees Fahrenheit is better. Leftovers should go back in the refrigerator within two hours of cooking.
If you think you may have food poisoning, and especially if you’re experiencing symptoms, contact a doctor right away.