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The 12 Most Common Causes of Food Poisoning

May 2nd, 2011


The CDC estimates that there are about 48 million illnesses caused by food poisoning each year, and as a health care professional you're bound to see more than a few. Of course, knowing that food poisoning is a common occurrence isn't any consolation to those suffering through the nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps and digestive problems it can cause. Your best weapon against food poisoning is prevention, and there are a number of things you can do to reduce your risk of exposure to some of the common bacteria that cause it. Learn these common causes of food poisoning so you can eat smart and help stop yourself from becoming just another statistic.

  1. Raw or undercooked food. Whether you're cooking at home or going out, eating food that hasn't been cooked thoroughly or brought to the appropriate temperature can put you at high risk of developing food poisoning. While you might enjoy rare steak, runny eggs or certain raw veggies, these foods can all carry bacteria when they are not cooked long enough or hot enough to kill off the offending particles. Common bacteria found in undercooked food include E. coli, salmonella and campylobacter. Be safe instead of sorry and ask that your food be cooked through or use this chart when at home.
  2. Food that is not stored at the proper temperature. While simple common sense would tell you that leaving foods like meat and dairy products out of refrigeration makes them unfit to eat, temperature regulation can be a bit more complicated. Refrigerators can malfunction, foods can be forgotten on the counter and instructions on labels can be misread. To keep yourself safe, always check the temperature on your fridge and freezer. They should be at 40 degrees F and 0 degrees F respectively. Always read the label to see what foods will need be refrigerated immediately and which have to be cooled after opening. If you plan to freeze foods, do it within 2 days of purchase. This can help prevent some very serious bacteria from growing and making you sick.
  3. Letting food sit out. Most of us are smart enough to not let refrigerated foods sit out, but sometimes we can forget to put away the leftovers or want it on hand at a party. In order to keep these foods safe to eat and avoid some common bacteria taking hold, you should always put leftovers away as soon as you can. If you're serving food at a party, keep hot food at 140 degrees F or warmer, cold foods at 40 degrees F. Never leave perishable food out for more than two hours, especially if the weather is warm. This will help ensure that neither you nor your guests end up sick.
  4. Not washing hands before eating or preparing food. Contamination of foods from dirty hands is a big cause of many cases of food poisoning. Always wash your hands thoroughly before and after handling foods at home (for at least 20 seconds) and only eat at restaurants with strong showings in health department assessments. Additionally, always make sure your hands are clean before eating food as well, especially if you will be touching them. Without these precautions, you could put yourself at risk of coming in contact with bacteria like staphylococcus-aureus and clostridium-perfringens.
  5. Contamination of other foods by raw meat. Cross-contamination of foods is a major health issue and one that many out there should be highly conscious of avoiding at home. When juices from contaminated meat get onto cutting boards, hands and into the refrigerator, contamination can spread to other foods, some of which you might not plan to cook at all. It is essential to keep raw meat, poultry and fish separate from other foods. Always wash any utensils, countertops and cutting boards that have come in contact with them immediately, sanitizing them with bleach and water, or even having separate tools for handling meat can be a big help.
  6. Eating raw shellfish. Raw oysters may be a delicacy, but ingesting them doesn't come without some serious risks. Oysters from the Gulf of Mexico are commonly contaminated with Vibrio vulnificus bacteria which can cause mild to serious food poisoning. Additionally, even oysters that do not come from this region are often left unrefrigerated for several hours while being brought to shore. While you may be fine after eating raw oysters, be aware that ingestion of these shellfish uncooked is a big risk and could lead to serious health issues.
  7. Improper canning. Canning foods at home has been a common practice for several decades, but it's one that needs to be carefully monitored in order to ensure that the food being preserved won't carry contaminates along with it. Botulism is perhaps the most common bacteria contaminant in improperly canned food, and is one of the most serious and potentially deadly forms of food poisoning out there. Always boil jars and lids to be used in canning to kill off any lingering bacteria and make sure that all cans are properly sealed. Improper canning can also happen with foods you get off grocery store shelves so look out for bulges, discolored food, or seepage.
  8. Ingesting expired food. We've all done it at one point or another, but eating expired food comes with a big risk for food poisoning attached. Always check expiration dates before ingesting any food in your home or purchased at the store. If there is no date on the package, no packaging or only a sell by date, use the government guidelines for cold storage to help you determine if a food is safe to eat or not.
  9. Not reheating food thoroughly.You might think that you only have to worry about food poisoning in foods that haven't already been cooked, but that's not entirely the case. You should also be careful with foods that you're reheating, especially if they've been hanging out in your fridge for more than a couple of days. When reheating foods, make sure that meats reach a temp of at least 160-170 degrees F and that other foods come to around 165 degrees F. This will ensure that any bacteria that might have made its way into the food will be killed off and that you'll be able to avoid a common cause of food poisoning.
  10. Not washing produce thoroughly before preparation. Even those seemingly innocuous veggies can be the source of food poisoning if not washed and prepared properly. Prior to reaching your table, there's no telling how many things they may have come in contact with, so always clean any fruit or vegetables with a soft kitchen brush and water (or a pre-prepared veggie wash) to ensure that any bacteria it contains will be largely washed away. This is especially important with foods that you do not plan to cook. While foodbourne illness is more commonly caused by meats, recent outbreaks of salmonella and E. coli have originated in spinach and tomatoes.
  11. Unclean cooking utensils and surfaces. When it comes to food safety, cleanliness matters. Dirty kitchens attract mice and rats that can spread disease and also create ideal places for bacteria to grow and thrive and access your food. It's essential to keep any space you plan to cook in and any tools you plan to use highly sanitized. The USDA advises putting a tablespoon of bleach into one gallon of water to create a sanitizing liquid. This can help prevent any bacteria hanging out in your kitchen from getting on food and will ensure that none are able to cross contaminate one another.
  12. Unpasteurized foods. For the most part, people are fine after eating foods that are unpasteurized, provided they have been stored and served in a safe manner. Yet for those with compromised immune systems, who are pregnant and the very young and very old could be at risk for food poisoning from these. Commonly pasteurized foods include milk, cheeses, yogurt, ice cream, ciders and juices. Unpasteurized versions of these foods can carry Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria, which can make individuals very sick.


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