Straight, No Chaser: Food Contamination and Protecting Yourself From Foodborne Illness


Those of you who are regular readers of Straight, No Chaser may have heard me say that everything you place in your mouth either harms or helps you. Your mouth is the direct point of entry to your body. You should be concerned about the substances you ingest. Today’s post begins a Straight, No Chaser series that will discuss food safety, food poisoning, prevention and treatment of foodborne illnesses. Today we start with food safety.
Allow me to suggest that bacteria are as much (if not more) of a part of this world as humans, and it is to be expected that they would be present in our food supply. Our issues are when does present become contaminated, and when does contaminated become illness? Understanding these issues makes it easier to take appropriate preventative and treatment measures when needed.


Here are some examples of how our food becomes contaminated.

  • Microorganisms (e.g. bacterial, viruses) exist in the intestines of healthy animals, even those raised for human consumption. Even a small amount of spillage of intestinal contents during slaughter can lead to contamination.
  • Fruits and vegetables can be contaminated when washed or irrigated with contaminated water (which sometimes contains animal manure or human sewage).
  • Salmonella can infect a hen’s ovary (remember the ovaries produce eggs) so that the contents of a normal-appearing egg can be contaminated even before the shell is formed.
  • Vibrio bacteria are normally present in seawater. Oysters and other shellfish can develop concentrations of Vibrio high enough to cause infections.
  • Microorganisms such as norovirus can concentrate in human sewage that is dumped into the sea. This contaminates the water supply.
  • Infected food handlers and food conditions pass microorganisms on to customers. Examples of this include Shigella bacteria, hepatitis A virus and norovirus. Knives, other utensils and table surfaces also are methods of transferring disease when unclean.
  • When certain foods are left out (i.e. not refrigerated), minimal contamination can become highly infectious in a matter of hours due to rapid growth of microorganisms. Conversely, in most instances refrigeration or freezing prevents virtually all bacteria from growing. Certain other foods (e.g. salted meats, jams, pickled vegetables) require high salt, sugar or acid levels to prevent bacterial growth.
  • When certain foods are adequately cooked (the ideal internal temperature is 160 degrees Fahrenheit), most microorganisms will be killed.


Protecting yourself from foodborne illness
Professionals in public health, industry, governmental regulatory agencies, and academic research have roles to play in making the food supply less contaminated. So do you. I would like to advocate for one simple step for you to take as you shop for food that will promote food safety.

  • Buying pasteurized milk rather than raw unpasteurized milk prevents an enormous number of foodborne diseases every day and has done so for 100 years. Juice pasteurization has more recently proven to be important in preventing certain E. coli infections. Basically, you can lower your risk by purchasing pasteurized products.

Courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, here are some additional simple precautions to reduce the risk of foodborne diseases:
COOK: Cook your meat, poultry and eggs thoroughly.

  • Using a food thermometer to measure the internal temperature of meat is a good way to be sure that it is cooked sufficiently to kill bacteria. Remember, the internal temperature of meat should be above 160 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Eggs should be cooked until the yolk is firm.

SEPARATE: Don’t cross-contaminate one food with another.

  • Avoid cross-contaminating foods by washing hands, utensils and cutting boards after they have been in contact with raw meat or poultry and before they touch another food.
  • Put cooked meat on a clean platter, rather back on one that held the pre-cooked, raw meat.

CHILLRefrigerate leftovers promptly.

  • Bacteria can grow quickly at room temperature, so refrigerate leftover foods if they are not going to be eaten within 4 hours.
  • Large volumes of food will cool more quickly if they are divided into several shallow containers for refrigeration.

CLEANWash produce.

  • Rinse fresh fruits and vegetables in running tap water to remove visible dirt and grime.
  • Remove and discard the outermost leaves of a head of lettuce or cabbage.
  • Because bacteria can grow well on the cut surface of fruit or vegetable, be careful not to contaminate these foods while slicing them up on the cutting board, and avoid leaving cut produce at room temperature for many hours.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water before preparing food and before touching others.
  • Avoid preparing food for others if you yourself have a diarrheal illness.
  • Changing a baby’s diaper while preparing food is a bad idea that can easily spread illness.

REPORT: Report suspected foodborne illnesses to your local health department.

  • Calls from concerned citizens are often how outbreaks are first detected. Play your part.
  • If a public health official contacts you to find out more about an illness you had, your cooperation is important. In public health investigations, it can be as important to talk to healthy people as to ill people.

Order your copy of Dr. Sterling’s new book Behind The Curtain: A Peek at Life from within the ER at, iTunes, AmazonBarnes and Nobles and wherever books are sold.
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