Avoiding food poisoning and susceptible groups

Information about those groups more susceptible to foodborne illness and useful tips for everyone to help avoid it.

Some groups of people are more susceptible to foodborne illnesses – the very young, the elderly, and those who have immunity problems due to cancer, HIV, organ transplants or the like. In order to keep them and all of us safe from sickness, we need to take care to prepare all our foods in the safest manner.

You may wonder why you hear so much more about foodborne illnesses, recalls and incidences of outbreaks than you ever have before. Not a week goes by without something in the news. Some of the reasons are:
• Our foods come from all over the world. Years ago, our food was grown, processed and sold locally. Many more handlers are in the mix today with different safety rules in differing countries.
• Science has discovered new bacteria and ways to identify it. Research is ongoing for foodborne pathogens.
• We have better means of tracking outbreaks through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and our local Health Departments. If there is an outbreak, we are more likely than ever to find out about it.

How does one recognize a foodborne illness? Is it something you ate, or a 24-hour “bug?”  Many symptoms mimic the flu. You may experience nausea, vomiting or diarrhea, or you could have a fever, body aches and headache. The only clear way to find out is to contact your doctor. They can run samples to determine if a bacterium is to blame. If your symptoms become severe, a hospital visit is in order.

If you get sick shortly after eating out, you may want to alert your health department and they will investigate. Since you can’t see, smell or taste bacteria that contaminate our food, you may think it was something you ate – usually the last thing you ate – but foodborne bacteria can take 20 minutes to six weeks to show up. I can’t remember what I ate yesterday much less six weeks ago. Again, an investigation could help determine whether or not it is actually a foodborne illness.

You can’t help minimize the risk of foodborne illness while eating out, but you can when bringing cooked foods home. Make sure your “doggie bags” or purchased hot foods stay hot and your cold foods stay cold. If it takes longer than two hours to get home (one hour with high temperatures), it isn’t worth the possibility of getting sick. Throw the food out.
There are steps you can take to keep yourself safe from foodborne illness at home. Follow these four basic rules of food safety.
1. Clean. Wash hands and surfaces often. This includes cutting boards, utensils and countertops.
2. Separate. Keep foods that are ready to eat away from raw meats to avoid cross contamination. Use a different cutting board for meats, or clean and sanitize between uses, and use a new plate for cooked foods (don’t put the grilled chicken back onto the plate that held the raw chicken.)
3. Cook. Cook foods to proper temperatures. Use a food thermometer.
4. Chill. Put food into your 40 degrees Fahrenheit or lower refrigerator within two hours of eating and thaw your foods correctly. Your refrigerator and freezer should not be packed too full as the cold air needs to circulate.

If you are a person who is susceptible or are in a household with someone who is, Michigan State University Extension recommends that susceptible populations should not eat:
• Raw fish, meat or poultry.
• Raw or unpasteurized milk and cheese.
• Raw or undercooked eggs, unless the egg is pasteurized.
• Raw sprouts.
• Soft cheeses, like Brie, feta and Camembert.
• Unpasteurized fruit and vegetable juices, and ciders.

If you would like more information about food safety, contact your local MSU Extension office or call 888-MSUE4MI (888-678-3463).

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