(Disclosure: This is a public health themed post, repeated from the 2012 A-Z Challenge. It’s as relevant today as it was a year ago, and so I believe it warrants a re-run.)
It’s a special event and you and your spouse head to a favorite restaurant to celebrate. You get a great booth next to the window with the scenic view. The menu is filled with tantalizing items---you each order an entrée and the salad bar.
When you’re at the salad bar, you’re impressed with all the choices available---from cut vegetables and fruits, to nuts and toppings, and several different salad dressing choices. You load up your plate and head back to your table to enjoy your meal.
And you do enjoy your meal. The food tastes good; there’s lots of laughter and good feelings going on around the table and you both enjoy the celebration.
However, later that evening, your spouse starts complaining about a stomach ache. You’re not feeling too well yourself. And within the hour, you’re both experiencing projectile vomiting and worse and your evening is now ruined.
You were just poisoned by the food in your favorite restaurant. Not intentionally, of course, but from this point forward, you’re never going to feel quite the same about the place.
Does it surprise you to hear that the biggest food safety problem we consumers face is at the salad bar? Even though the food supply in the United States is one of the safest in the world, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each year, 76 million people get sick, more than 325,000 are hospitalized, and 5,000 Americans die from foodborne illness. Preventing foodborne illness and death remains a major public health challenge.
The culprit in most foodborne illnesses is bacteria. Bacteria are everywhere and they grow on food, doubling every 20 minutes! They do particularly well in foods that are high in protein such as milk, meat, fish, or eggs and food with high water content such as fruit and melons. Freezing, refrigerating, and drying foods do not kill the bacteria—it just keeps them in a dormant state. When you thaw the food or remove it from the refrigerator, the bacteria continue to grow and reproduce.
Cooking food products to their required temperatures will kill the bacteria and render it harmless. However, when the bacteria grow, they produce toxins and you cannot inactivate the toxins with heat or cold. That means that any food that smells off or feels slimy cannot be fixed under any circumstance and needs to be thrown out! If in doubt, throw it out.
Safe food handling practices, cooking temperatures, proper refrigeration, and proper hygiene are all key to avoiding foodborne illness. The website http://www.foodsafety.gov is a good resource for consumer advice on food safety.