Did you know there are more than 250 different varieties of food poisoning specifically caused by disregarding proper food safety precautions? Some of these illnesses will make you very ill for 24 to 48 hours; others will sicken you to the point of needing hospitalization. And others, unfortunately, may cause death. Because of its symptoms, food poisoning can often be incorrectly diagnosed as a case of stomach flu and thus won’t be correlated to previously ingested food simply because it may take anywhere from one hour to twenty-four hours before someone begins to feel sick from eating contaminated food, depending on the type of pathogen responsible for the food-borne illness.
There are four different types of microorganisms which cause food poisoning: bacteria, viruses, parasites, and toxins. Bacterial food contamination is the most common, caused by dirty utensils, unsanitized food prep areas, and food that was already contaminated before reaching its destination. Bacteria thrive in an environment where the temperature is between 40 and 130 degrees Fahrenheit, which is roughly the normal temperature of most livable areas.
Salmonella is a common bacterial infection found in such foods as eggs, fish, and chicken, and originates in the gastrointestinal tracts of humans and animals. Clostridium botulinum, or botulism, is another bacterial toxin caused by tainted food, not as common as salmonella, and with less than one in every four hundred cases of food poisoning accounting for botulism. But botulism is more fatal, causing death in nearly 30% of all cases. It is most commonly found in home-canned foods where it can produce a neurotoxin in the pressured environment of negligently processed foods. If a can has a bulge in it, or does not smell right, chances are it may contain the botulism spore. You can kill the toxin by boiling the infected food for at least ten minutes. Another common bacteria Escherichia coli, or E. coli, is also known as “traveler’s diarrhea”, and breeds in feces and dirty, untreated water, especially where the same water is re-used for washing, drinking and bathing.
Food becomes contaminated when food safety precautions are not heeded and the germs remain on the food, only to be shipped out and ingested by unsuspecting individuals. Pathogens can also be released during the process of slaughtering livestock, by the accidental mixing of animal feces with the food being processed; unclean factories where food is prepared, canned and packaged; and using polluted water to process the food or even “clean” the instruments used in the processing of the food. Simple precautionary steps can be used to prevent contamination and the potential for life-threatening illness to affect a large amount of people who may come in contact with an infected piece of food, such as vigorous hand washing with antibacterial soap and prior sterilization of all machinery and utensils used in processing the food. Knowing how to correctly can foods at home, such as vegetables or jams, will also prevent an encounter with a food-borne pathogen. The U.S. Department of Agriculture can send you information regarding these food safety procedures.