Food borne infections - including E. coli infection, Salmonella infection, cryptosporidiosis, campylobacteriosis, shigellosis and listeriosis - can lead to an inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract called gastroenteritis. Symptoms can include diarrhea, cramps and fever. Some food borne infections can lead to reactive arthritis. Food borne illnesses can be especially dangerous to young children, seniors, pregnant women, people with liver disease and people with weakened immune systems.
But there are ways to safeguard yourself and your family against this problem. Some suggestions from the International Food Information Council include:
* Don't defrost food on the counter; instead let food thaw in the refrigerator or use a microwave.
* Wash your hands in hot soapy water before and after handling food.
* Disinfect sponges and kitchen towels regularly.
* Make sure you thoroughly wash any cutting boards or utensils after use, especially if they've come in contact with raw meats, fish or poultry.
* Wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly before eating.
* Don't let perishable foods stay at room temperature for more than two hours.
* Avoid raw eggs; in recipes using eggs that aren't cooked, such as eggnog, you can substitute pasteurized eggs, sold in the grocery dairy case or freezer.
* Be alert for defects in metal cans and glass jars - such as cracks, bulges, unsealed lids or damaged seals - which can indicate the presence of botulism.
* Always cook fish thoroughly. Cooking fish until it is opaque and flaky helps destroy any bacteria that may be present. Avoid eating raw oysters or shellfish.
Cooking food thoroughly is important too. For example, the American Dietetic Association suggests using a food thermometer to make sure meats are cooked to the proper temperature all the way through to the middle. Rare or even medium-rare won't protect you from food-borne illness, such as trichinosis and toxoplasmosis.
When serving food buffet-style, remember to maintain the proper temperature of the food. Use a warming tray or chafing dish for hot foods, for example; or keep a serving dish of cold food over a large bowl of crushed ice. If serving special foods during holidays, such as a whole turkey, follow the cooking and temperature directions carefully.
The cold temperature of a refrigerator slows bacteria growth, so after meals, it's also important to refrigerate leftovers promptly. Other suggestions from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA):
* don't leave foods out for more than two hours after cooking
* refrigerate or freeze leftovers in small containers, so they can cool down quickly
* remove meat and poultry from the bone and slice into smaller serving sizes
Public health officials advise consumers to refrigerate foods quickly because cold temperatures keep most harmful bacteria from growing and multiplying. Refrigerators should be set at 40 degrees F and the freezer at 0 degrees F, and the accuracy of the settings should be checked occasionally with a thermometer.
It's also a good idea to date leftovers. in general, foods can be safely refrigerated for three to five days after cooking. By putting a date on your leftovers, you can more easily tell when they've gone beyond this point.
Although children and the elderly are more susceptible to food-borne illnesses, food poisoning can be serious at any age. Taking the right precautions when preparing, serving and storing foods is good advice for everyone.