Misconceptions about food poisoning

Created date

May 10th, 2016
Washing cherry tomatoes in the kitchen sink

Washing fruits and vegetables in the kitchen sink to prevent food poisoning is a common misperception.

The USDA has developed four easy steps to take to lower your risk of foodborne illness.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that about one in six Americans—48 million people—become sick from foodborne illness (food poisoning) every year. About 128,000 of these people are hospitalized, and 3,000 die. Following are three common misconceptions about foodborne illness and reasons why seniors need to be especially vigilant to avoid getting sick. 

1. Some raw foods are safe

Many raw foods are served in the finest restaurants, but that doesn’t mean they are safe. Pathogens are often undetectable. “Fresh Caesar salad dressing is typically made with raw egg,” says Jessica DeCostole, M.S., R.D., L.D.N., dietitian educator at MedStar Good Samaritan Hospital in Baltimore, Md. “Some soft cheeses are made using unpasteurized milk.” 

Shellfish, including raw oysters and clams, may be infected with a pathogen or toxin even if they smell fresh. The same holds true for rare or raw beef.

Once you get to dessert, you still have to be vigilant. Many chiffon pies and fruit whips contain raw egg whites.

2. Being ill from food poisoning is not dangerous

There are numerous foodborne pathogens, so a foodborne infection can announce itself in various ways. Most often, symptoms include nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea, because microbes enter your body through the gastrointestinal tract. “For most healthy people, these symptoms resolve within in a few days,” says Marianne H. Gravely, M.S., technical information specialist, Food Safety and Inspection Service,
U. S. Department of Agriculture. “But seniors should call their doctor as soon as possible, because even if symptoms are mild, you can’t assume you will recover without some medical advice.”

While you are sick, staying hydrated should be your number one priority. “Take small sips of water, or suck on ice chips as frequently as you can,” DeCostole says “If you can’t keep any fluid down at all, let your doctor know right away.”

Once you can keep solid food down, keep it bland, but avoid dairy. “Stay away from dairy products for at least 48 hours,” Gravely says. “Your intestines are too damaged to be able to digest milk products.”

3. You can wash microbes off

Most cases of foodborne illness are related to animal-based foods, and washing meats before cooking used to be a popular practice. But research revealed that this process may harm more than help. “Pathogens tend to be tightly attached, so rinsing can be pointless,” Gravely says. “Cooking poultry, fish, and other meats to the proper temperature is the best way to kill most microbes.”

Infections linked to raw fruits and vegetables have been making the news more often. “You can reduce, but not eliminate, your chances of getting sick by washing produce,” Gravely says. “Use a brush on hard-skinned fruits and vegetables, including those that you intend to peel.”

Some products claim to be effective cleansers for fruits and vegetables, but Gravely says they have not been shown to be any more effective than cold running water. 

As for cleaning foodborne pathogens off your hands, thoroughness is the key. “Use running water and lather well with soap for at least 20 seconds,” Gravely says. 

“Too many people ‘splash and dash.’ Also, change the kitchen towel frequently or use paper towels to dry.” 

Special considerations for seniors

Your senses are your body’s first defense against tainted food, but detecting bad food may be more difficult as you get older. “Your sense of sight is not as good, and your senses of smell and taste are less sensitive,” Gravely says. 

A second-line defense against foodborne infection is inside your stomach. “The stomach contains hydrochloric acid, which can destroy many pathogens before they do any damage,” Gravely says. “But acidity tends to decrease with age, and it can also be affected by medications.” 

If you get sick, it’s up to your immune system to fight off the enemy, but once again, your age works against you. “Even if you are perfectly healthy, a natural part of the aging process is a less effective immune system, so you are more likely to be affected by bad food and you may become very ill from it,” DeCostole explains. 

You might also take longer to feel better. “Your gastrointestinal tract doesn’t move as quickly as it used to, and your liver and kidneys may not be able to remove toxins as quickly as they could a decade ago,” DeCostole says. “The added burden of chronic illness can have an effect on how well your body fights off foodborne pathogens.”

Four steps for safety

The USDA has developed four easy steps to take to lower your risk of foodborne illness.

Clean: Keep your hands, surfaces, and utensils clean.

Separate: Keep ready-to-eat foods separate from raw meat poultry, seafood, and eggs.

Cook: Cook to proper temperatures.

Chill: Refrigerate promptly to 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below.

Source: FoodSafety.gov