Even though the food supply in the U.S. is recognized as one of the safest in the world, it should not blind Americans to the truth that our food is not completely free from pathogenic bacteria.
One in six Americans will become sick – even mildly – from food poisoning this year. It not only sends more than 125,000 Americans to the hospital each year, but it kills as many as 3,000, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Half of the roughly 48 million American food poisoning victims are children 15 and under. Most often when we experience moderate to severe food-related gastrointestinal (GI) problems, we mistake it for a minor case of the flu, the symptoms of which are similar but not identical. Those pass in a few days.
But sometimes, “something you ate” leads to serious – even fatal – health problems. Botulism, E. coli, Salmonella, Listeria, staphylococcal infections and even Hepatitis can trigger a case of food poisoning, and seriously attack the most vulnerable: young children, the aged, and those with autoimmune deficiencies. This can produce chronic health problems for many years. Every September is National Food Safety Education Month. But obviously, understanding how we – and others – keep our food supply safe is a year-long quest that we cannot take lightly.
Many of these bacteria are present in raw meat, poultry, and eggs. Others are found on produce or even people’s hands and can cause illness when proper hygiene is not followed. Food poisoning can also be caused by molds or parasites, though bacterial infection is the most common.
Protect Your Family from Foodborne Illness at Home and Away
Though you have no control over how your food is handled before you buy it, you can follow the four basic steps of food safety that restaurants and suppliers up and down the food supply chain follow to prevent food poisoning: clean, separate, cook, and chill. It starts when you bring it home. Thoroughly rinse all perishable foods and place them in airtight storage bags and then your refrigerator or freezer.
Clean your hands (with antibacterial soap) before preparing your meals. And if you leave the prep area or handle anything – such as your cellphone – for any reason, wash your hands again when you return. Clean all cooking countertops and prep-area surfaces before you begin meal prep.
Separate raw meat, fish, and poultry from other items and prepare them separately.
Cook meat, poultry, egg products, and fish to the right temperature. Use a food thermometer to maintain a minimum internal temperature of at least 140o F (60o C) to kill any bacteria.
Store all leftovers in your refrigerator (40o F) within two hours of cooking to keep harmful bacteria away. If possible, use sealable containers or storage bags and remove the air from them before closing.
When Dining at a Restaurant, Be Vigilant
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) warns that salsa and guacamole increasingly cause food poisoning because they’re often made in large batches with several ingredients, and often aren’t refrigerated properly. One bad ingredient can sicken lots of people.
Here are some other tips to avoid food poisoning when eating out:
Examine the Cooks and Wait Staff – Do they have clean aprons and uniforms? If they’re clean, it suggests that they are not wiping their hands on their clothes. If they have long hair, are they wearing a net? What do their hands look like: are there unbandaged cuts, bitten nails, or raw cuticles? Beware.
Avoid Buffets and Salad Bars – Many believe salad bars are safe, but these can be one of the main reasons that people get sick at restaurants. Food in common service areas is seldom kept to the correct temperature. And lots of people touch both the food and the utensils. Common food areas are bacteria breeding grounds.
Beware of Specials – Sometimes “specials” are a way for restaurants to move leftovers that have been laying around for a day or two.
Smell Your Food – You know how good food smells. If it doesn’t pass this simple test, send it back.
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