Monday Medical: Protect yourself from foodborne illnesses

Heather Rose/For Steamboat Today

It’s Memorial Day, and while rain has dominated our forecast recently, many still plan to barbecue today and throughout the upcoming summer months. Food safety can take a back seat to enjoying a meal with family and friends. Yet from pitchfork to table fork, every step of the food chain requires vigilant safety measures.

Foodborne illness, also called food poisoning, affects one in six Americans each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most of the 48 million cases are relatively minor, though some — approximately 128,000 people each year — require hospitalization.

The major culprits in foodborne illness include bacteria, viruses and parasites. Organisms commonly involved in outbreaks include salmonella, campylobacter and listeria.

Symptoms can begin immediately or develop during a period of hours. Common symptoms include abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and sometimes fever, chills, headache or stiffness. Most illnesses are mild and can be treated by increasing fluid intake to replace lost body fluids and electrolytes.

Salmonella is the leading cause of food poisoning in the U.S. and the source of the most recent newsworthy outbreak linked to raw tuna. It poses a serious threat, killing approximately 380 people annually. Salmonella is commonly found in raw meats, poultry, eggs, seafood and salad dressing. Thorough cooking will kill salmonella bacteria.

Salmonella is frequently spread through cross-contamination of foods. For example, anything such as knives or cutting boards used to prepare raw meat should not be reused for any raw or cooked food items before washing the items in hot, soapy water.

Campylobacter is the second-leading cause of foodborne illness in the U.S. It is found in raw chicken, unpasteurized milk and non-chlorinated water. In a study completed by the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System, campylobacter was found on 47 percent of raw chicken samples bought in grocery stores. Cooking destroys the bacteria.

Campylobacter causes at least 1.3 million illnesses in the U.S. annually. Not surprisingly, more campylobacteriosis, the illness it causes, is seen in the summer months.

Listeria monocytogenes is a microscopic bacteria found in soil and water. It can cause listeriosis, an acute illness. Listeriosis can cause stillbirths and miscarriages and can be fatal among infants, the elderly or frail. Foods that might pose a risk include hot dogs and lunch meats, soft cheeses, refrigerated smoked seafood and raw and unpasteurized dairy products. Many remember the listeria outbreak linked to whole cantaloupes back in 2011 that began right here in Colorado.

Food contamination can occur anywhere, including at home, picnics or the campground. YVMC’s lead cook Stephanie Muhlbauer recommends following a few simple rules to stay safe.

• Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Use insulated bags and/or dry ice to keep cold foods below 41 degrees. Hot foods should stay above 140 degrees.

• Don’t let cooked foods sit at room temperature for more than one hour.

• Wash hands well with hot, soapy water before food preparation, between handling raw and cooked items or produce and after changing diapers and handling pets.

• Avoid cross-contamination.

• Use separate cutting boards for meat and for fruits and vegetables.

• After preparing meat, wash cutting board, counter and knives with hot, soapy water.

• Wash fruits and vegetables well before eating.

• Use a meat thermometer, and cook meats to recommended temperatures.

The CDC has been monitoring the incidence of foodborne illness since 1996. While there have been hills and valleys in the data for each illness, overall, foodborne illness is down 22 percent. Follow Stephanie’s simple tips to keep yourself, and those at your table, safe.

Heather Rose is manager of marketing and communications at Yampa Valley Medical Center.

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