Every year, about one in six Americans contracts a foodborne illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Food-poisoning symptoms are severe enough to send 128,000 people to the hospital and to kill 3,000 annually. Bacteria, viruses, chemicals and parasites can all be the culprits.
Foodborne illness happens year-round. In summer, hot days and picnics pose extra hazards. In fall and winter, holiday potlucks combine food-handling mysteries with temperature-control issues. “Most bacteria can multiply in 30 minutes,” says Marlene Janes, associate professor at the Louisiana State University Food Science Department. Bacteria love heat, whether from summer sun or your cozy house in winter. If you suddenly have abdominal pain, chills, vomiting, diarrhea and/or fever, it could be that potluck cole slaw or an undercooked Thanksgiving turkey. Fortunately, consumers can do a lot to minimize their chance of coming down with a foodborne illness, Janes says.
Nearly half of foodborne illnesses stem from produce, especially leafy greens, according to the CDC. This is bad news for Monica Theis and other dietitians trying to promote healthful eating. “I strongly support more consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables,” says Theis, a food-safety specialist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “A challenge with fresh produce is we don’t always cook it. So we don’t have the advantage of that kill step.” She recommends buying from a reputable source, keeping produce refrigerated and rinsing it in cold water before eating. If you buy pre-washed spinach, don’t wash it again at home, because you might introduce new contaminants. Pathogens often enter the produce from untreated water supplies. Many small farmers use water from wells, rivers and creeks to irrigate their crops, Janes says.