Causes and Prevention of Foodborne Illness: Everything You Need to Know

stomach-pain-pixbyFoodborne illness, or food poisoning as many call it, is a widespread and potentially life-threatening health issue.

Therefore, understanding the causes and prevention of foodborne illness is crucial for everyone, from home cooks to professional chefs, food industry workers, and consumers.

This article explores the causes of foodborne illness, identifies high-risk foods, and provides essential strategies for preventing this health issue.

Common Causes of Foodborne Illness

Symptoms of foodborne illness can show up quickly, sometimes within hours after you eat or drink a contaminated meal, or they might take a few days to appear. The following is an in-depth look at the common causes:

Biological Contaminants

Contaminants can get into food during any part of its journey from farm to table. Bacteria such as Salmonella and E. coli are well-known culprits. These bacteria can thrive in various foods, especially undercooked meats, raw eggs, and unpasteurized dairy products. They often lead to symptoms like diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and fever.

Viruses, including Norovirus and Hepatitis A, are another significant cause of foodborne illness. They can spread rapidly, particularly in food preparation settings for large groups of people, like restaurants and cafeterias. Infected food handlers are a common source of these viruses.

Chemical Contaminants

These contaminants include pesticides and herbicides used in agriculture, which can remain on produce if not properly washed. On top of that, heavy metals such as lead and mercury can enter the food chain through polluted water and soil, posing health risks, especially to young children and pregnant women. In addition, food additives and preservatives, although regulated, can sometimes cause adverse reactions in sensitive individuals.

Physical Contaminants

Physical contaminants are another source of foodborne illness and include foreign objects like glass, metal, or plastic that accidentally get into food during production or preparation. These contaminants can cause choking or injury. 

Poor food handling practices also contribute significantly to physical contamination. These practices include improper storage, cross-contamination between raw and cooked foods, and inadequate cleaning of utensils and surfaces.

High Risk Foods

Certain foods are more prone to contamination and thus considered high-risk. Raw and undercooked meat and poultry are at the top of this list because they may have harmful bacteria like Salmonella and Campylobacter. Additionally, cross-contamination from raw meat to other foods via cutting boards, knives, and hands is a common issue that can spread bacteria.

Dairy products also pose a significant risk. Unpasteurized milk and cheeses can carry bacteria such as Listeria, which is particularly dangerous for pregnant women, newborns, seniors, and those with weakened immune systems.

In addition, seafood, including fish and shellfish, can be contaminated with various pathogens, including Vibrio and norovirus. Raw or undercooked seafood, like sushi and oysters, is particularly risky. Some fish also contain toxins not destroyed by cooking and cause ciguatera or scombroid poisoning.

Although fresh produce is generally safe, the planting, harvest and distribution processes may contaminate it with bacteria like E. coli and Salmonella. For instance, such bacteria may be in the soil.

Processed foods are another category to be mindful of. These foods can become contaminated during processing if proper hygiene and safety standards are not maintained. Ready-to-eat meals, deli meats, and packaged salads are examples where contamination can occur.

Strategies to Prevent Foodborne Illness

Preventing this illness is a responsibility that extends beyond the home kitchen to include professional food handlers and managers because contamination can happen anywhere along that process. Thus, if you are pursuing a career in the food service industry, one critical step to ensure you are well-prepared is to study for your ServSafe manager test.

Further, implement the following strategies to reduce the risk of contamination:

Personal Hygiene

The simplest yet most effective way to prevent foodborne illness is personal hygiene. It starts with regular hand washing. Do this thoroughly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially before handling food and whenever you touch raw meat while cooking. Personal hygiene also involves keeping fingernails trimmed and clean, avoiding touching the face while cooking, and using clean gloves or utensils to handle food.

Proper Food Storage

Temperature control is a key aspect of this; refrigerate perishable foods at or below 40°F (4°C) and frozen foods at 0°F (-18°C) or lower. It’s also important to avoid cross-contamination by keeping raw meat, poultry, and seafood separate from other foods, especially ready-to-eat items. Therefore, use different cutting boards, containers, and storage areas for raw and cooked foods.

Safe Food Preparation

It involves cooking foods to a suitable temperature to kill harmful bacteria. A food thermometer can help you reach safe internal temperatures for meat and seafood. For example, ground beef should cook to 160°F (71°C) or higher. 

Additionally, keeping kitchen surfaces and utensils clean is vital. Regularly sanitize cutting boards, knives, and countertops after they have been in contact with raw foods. In addition, wash fruits and vegetables under running water before eating or cooking.

Awareness and Education

Ongoing awareness and education about food safety are critical components in preventing foodborne diseases. For example, stay informed about food recalls and outbreaks through reliable sources such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Such timely information on food safety issues can help you take prompt action if you have a recalled food item.

Final Thoughts

Foodborne diseases are a significant public health issue. The causes include biological contaminants like bacteria, viruses, and parasites, as well as chemical and physical contaminants that can enter our food supply through various means. 

High-risk foods such as raw and undercooked meat, dairy products, seafood, fresh produce, and processed foods are particularly susceptible to contamination. Two crucial preventive strategies are maintaining personal hygiene and ensuring proper food storage.

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Last Updated on June 6, 2024 by Marie Benz MD FAAD