By Lt. Col. Steve Lawrence, Veterinary Services Portfolio Executive Officer, U.S. Army Public Health CommandNovember 3, 2014
Ben Franklin once said, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," and that certainly is true today as it was in Ben's time. The United States has one of the safest food supply systems in the world but that doesn't mean it is perfect. Most service members are a well-traveled group and have eaten in countries that have differing food safety standards; some countries have no food standards at all. Gastrointestinal illness is one of the many repercussions that can afflict the service member who ate food from a street vendor selling the local specialty.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 6 Americans get sick every year as a result of foodborne illness; 128,000 are hospitalized; and approximately 3,000 die of foodborne diseases. Young children and adults over 65 years are most likely to be hospitalized with severe complications or even death as a result of foodborne illness. Salmonella, Norovirus, Clostridium and Campylobacter are the pathogens most commonly implicated in outbreak investigations.
Salmonella is a bacteria commonly found in farm animals like poultry. Many outbreaks can be linked to undercooked poultry and eggs but also other commodities such as fruits and vegetables have been linked to Salmonella foodborne outbreaks. The illness causes fever, abdominal cramps and diarrhea and can last up to one week in duration. Most people recover quickly without antibiotics.
Norovirus is the most common food poisoning sickness found in the United States. The CDC estimates that approximately 58 percent of all identified food outbreaks are caused by this virus. Salad ingredients and shellfish are the commodities most commonly associated with Norovirus. In addition to eating contaminated food and water, person to person contact or touching contaminated surfaces can lead to this sickness. Typical clinical symptoms of Norovirus infection are nausea, vomiting, cramps and diarrhea and can last anywhere from 1 to 3 days.
Clostridium perfringens is a bacteria found in the environment as well as the intestines of people and animals. Most cases of clostridium are caused by improperly cooked meats, meat products and gravy. Typical symptoms of this type of food poisoning include abdominal cramps and watery diarrhea that last for only 24 hours, however milder signs can last up to a couple of weeks.
Campylobacter organisms are bacteria found in the intestines of animals. Foodborne outbreaks are linked to poultry or unpasteurized milk that may have been contaminated with manure. Typical symptoms of this disease include fever, cramps, diarrhea and vomiting and can last from a few days to over a week.
Most of these foodborne illnesses can be prevented by following these guidelines:
1.Clean and properly disinfect food surfaces such as cutting boards. Keep separate cutting boards for fruits/vegetables and meats and never cross-contaminating. Clean fruits and vegetables thoroughly before serving raw or cooking.
2. Keep warm foods warm and cold foods cold. Food grows bacteria in the "food danger zone" of 41 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Ensure that hot foods are cooked to at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit before serving. Use a thermometer to verify the cooking temperature. Ensure that your refrigerator temperature is set low enough to bring foods below 40 degrees Fahrenheit rapidly.
3. Wash hands before, during and after food preparation.
4. Respect the "sell-by" date on fresh meat products.
Practicing these simple methods can keep your family healthy and prevent food poisoning. Remember, an ounce of food safety knowledge will save you many appointments at your primary care physician!