Increasing Risk of Food Poisoning


A couple of friends of mine went out for dinner recently to a local, well-known restaurant (nameless because it had to have been an isolated incident and accidental), for dinner. One chose to have tomato juice with the meal and on taking his first taste exclaimed “It’s rancid!” and did not drink any more, spitting out the little he had supped. Within 15 minutes he was violently ill and vomiting, and 24 hours later remained sick in bed as I write this article.

Public health authorities around the world are worried about the spread of foodborne disease and the emergence of new microbial strains entering our food supply. Contaminated food can cause diarrhea and dehydration, or more serious illnesses such as kidney failure or brain damage. Food poisoning can arise from bacterial toxins — such as those produced by Staphylococci or Clostridium Botulinum (which causes rare but deadly botulism, mostly from canned or bottled vegetables and meats) — or from bacteria that multiply in the body (such as Salmonelli or E. coli). Unlike food contaminated by mold or fungi, which looks and smells “bad” or rotten, food harbouring bacteria or their toxins may look fine, appear wholesome and smell normal, even though it is carrying deadly microbes. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) estimates that there are “millions of needless deaths” from foodborne illness around the globe each year. In developing areas, contaminated rivers, formula diluted with bacteria-laden water and poor sanitation compound the problem.

More and more foods contaminated

Surveys show that Salmonella, Listeria, Clostridium and other bacteria are contaminating ever more and different foods. For example, up to 80 per cent of chickens and other poultry are contaminated with Salmonella or Campylobacter by mechanized de-feathering and evisceration processes in which infected feces splatter the skin of the birds. Listeria bacteria are found in up to 15 per cent of soft-ripened cheeses; Yersinia bacteria are detectable in 20 per cent of raw (unpasteurized) milk products, Clostridium perfringens — sometimes called the “cafeteria bug” — is a frequent cause of food poisoning in re-warmed meats, casseroles, stews, pies and gravies; and Campylobacter jejuni bacteria, a recently discovered source of food poisoning, are now the chief contaminators of poultry, shellfish and unpasteurized milk. Chicken, turkey and other poultry should be well cooked and leftovers refrigerated, as left at room temperature any lingering bacteria multiply fast and next day’s turkey sandwich or casserole could make people ill. The problem is by no means confined to poultry, meat or dairy products.

Food poisoning outbreaks in industrialized countries have been traced to such items as Belgian chocolates, bottled mushrooms, rice pudding, onion rings, bean sprouts, melon, specialty breads, orange juice and even frozen strawberries.
The alerting signs of food poisoning:

  • diarrhea, vomiting; 
  • stomach cramps; 
  • nausea, appetite loss; 
  • possibly chills, fever.

The discomfort may begin within a few minutes to a few hours of consuming the contaminated food — or may only appear several days later when it’s no longer clearly linked to any particular food and might be self-diagnosed as 24-hour stomach flu. Foodborne illness often causes just a stomach ache and transient diarrhea, but it can be severe, even fatal — especially in the elderly, infants, pregnant women, diabetics, alcoholics and the immune-deficient.

Varied reasons for the rise in food poisoning

Experts blame many causes for the increasing incidence of food poisoning. The roots of the problem go back to the end of World War II and the rising popularity of meat — a favourite breeding ground for many microbes. With the demand for meat came a search for cheap animal fodder from tropical countries, where infection is rampant and bacteria spread into the food supply from contaminated animals. As noted by the World Health Organization (WHO), “Enormous quantities of animal feed were imported [into the West] and animals fed contaminated feeds have in turn contaminated the food supply.” Millions of bacteria-carrying animals across the world, housed in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions, contribute to the spread of foodborne disease. Data from the United Nations Environment Program show that 45 per cent of the world’s rivers, from which animals drink, are contaminated with fecal bacteria such as E. coli.

Large food processing plants, in which a single infected chicken (or other animal) can spew bacteria or viruses into a city’s poultry or meat supply, worsen the scene. The trend away from home cooking and the growth of fast food eateries, mass catering and pre-processed meals add to the spread of food poisoning. Almost half the food now consumed in the U.S. and Canada is eaten away from home or “ordered in.” Storage and extra handling increase food poisoning risks, especially among susceptible people — the elderly, young children, the ill and those with weak immune systems.

What to do about food poisoning

Report any suspected foodborne source of illness to the family physician. (Food poisoning is a “reportable disease” in several provinces.) Above all, keep up fluid intake.

The usual treatment for food poisoning or diarrhea is bed rest and plenty of fluids, preferably clear water or flat ginger ale. Self-remedies are fine for mild to moderate diarrhea or food poisoning, but severe bouts need medical attention — because of the risk of dehydration and other serious complications. Sufferers are advised to drink clear fluids such as broth, bottled carbonated drinks and clear tea (no milk) until the stomach cramps and diarrhea subside. Stick to rice, noodles, Jello, frozen Popsicles, mashed potatoes, pureed cooked foods (carrots, apples) until better, and resume full diet gradually. Avoid milk products. For fluid replacement because of diarrhea due to food poisoning, one expert recommends flat ginger ale or Gastrolite as “ideal for children and adults.”

Use mild medications to slow diarrhea such as Lomotil and Imodium sparingly — they can also be used in children, and work by slowing bowel spasms. Do not use these drugs when there is high fever, chills or persistent (bloody) diarrhea. (It’s best to consult a physician about their use as they may impede elimination of the bacteria.

For children with suspected food poisoning, ignore the old adage about “starving out the diarrhea” and continue light meals after the first 12-24 hours of diarrhea (unless the child is vomiting). Above all keep up fluid intake to avoid dehydration. Children’s small bodies lose water and dehydrate fast. Infants on formula can be given oral rehydration solution (ORS), as advised by a physician, marketed under different brand names and obtainable at most drug or grocery stores. Avoid plain water in young children as it’s not nourishing enough. Always consult a physician about severe diarrhea in children.

Lose no time in contacting the doctor if the child has:

  • Fever higher than 39[degrees]C (102[degrees]F); 
  • Repeated vomiting; 
  • Refusal to drink; 
  • Sunken eyes, listlessness, apathy; 
  • Rapid breathing; 
  • Bloody stools; 
  • In infants: very large, watery stools, sunken fontanelle (“soft spot” on top of the head), less than the usual number of wet diapers (reduced urination).

Calls for safer food handling

Poor sanitation, lack of elementary hygiene and the absence of safe rules for food handling facilitate bacterial spread. “How is it,” writes one expert, “that people need a license to drive a car, but no one asks a food handler to pass a rudimentary food safety test?” Lack of precautions, little supervision and even the simple failure to wash the hands can easily spread infection. One food handler can endanger hundreds of thousands of people a year. Education and food-monitoring systems are not enough to win the war against foodborne bacteria. Research is underway on new vaccines against cholera, typhoid and the new forms of E. coli.

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Author: Piyawut Sutthiruk

Losing weight will keep you healthy and have a long life. Cheer Up!

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