With picnic season upon us, the chances for getting a foodborne illness or "food sickness" increases. Food sickness often presents itself as flu-like symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or fever and the illness is attributed to the ingestion of "bad bacteria."
Bacteria in food
Many people may not know it, but there are bacteria all around us including in the food we eat. There are two main types of bacteria, good and bad. Good bacteria, like those found in yogurt, cheese and other dairy products, help the bacteria naturally inside our bodies to promote and regulate digestion. Bad bacteria, like those found in mishandled or improperly prepared foods, are the ones that make us ill.
Age and physical condition place some persons at higher risk than others, no matter what type of bacteria is implicated. Very young children, pregnant women, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems are at greatest risk from any pathogen. Some people may become ill after ingesting only a few harmful bacteria; others may remain symptom free after ingesting thousands.
How bacteria get in food
Bacteria may be present on products when you purchase them. Plastic-wrapped boneless chicken breasts and ground meat, for example, were once part of live chickens or cattle. Raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs are not sterile. Neither is fresh produce such as lettuce, tomatoes, sprouts and melons. Human interaction with products can also lead to contamination. It is always safer to act as all raw products are not sterile and contaminated.
Most bacteria that cause food borne illness can be destroyed through proper cooking or processing of food which prevents the harmful effects, but remember even foods, including safely cooked and ready-to-eat products, can become cross-contaminated with bacteria transferred from raw products, meat juices or other contaminated products or from food handlers with poor personal hygiene.
The danger zone
Bacteria multiply rapidly between 40 F and 140 F. To keep food out of this danger zone, keep cold food cold and hot food hot.
Food in the refrigerator (40 F or below) or freezer (0 F or below).
Cook food to a safe minimum internal temperature.
Beef, veal and lamb steaks, roasts and chops may be cooked to 145 F.
All cuts of pork to 160 F.
Ground beef, veal and lamb to 160 F.
All poultry should reach a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 F.
Maintain hot cooked food at 140 F or above.
When reheating cooked food, reheat to 165 F.
Follow these general guidelines if you suspect foodborne illness:
Preserve the evidence. If a portion of the suspect food is available, wrap it securely, mark "DANGER" and freeze it. Save all the packaging materials, such as cans or cartons. Write down the food type, the date, other identifying marks on the package, the time consumed and when the onset of symptoms occurred. Save any identical unopened products.
Seek treatment as necessary. If the victim is in an "at risk" group, seek medical care immediately. Likewise, if symptoms persist or are severe (such as bloody diarrhea, excessive nausea and vomiting or high temperature), call your doctor.
Call the local health department if the suspect food was served at a large gathering, from a restaurant or other food service facility, or if it is a commercial product. The regional office number is 570-327-3400.
Call the USDA meat and poultry hotline if the suspect food is a USDA-inspected product and you have all the packaging. Dial 1-888-674-6854.