Food-borne illnesses sicken 76 million Americans every year and kill about 5,000, federal health records say. The financial costs are staggering, too: nationwide, $152 billion a year. Florida spends $1,984 per case, according to a new report from the Produce Safety Project, an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts.
While anyone can get sick from food-borne pathogens, those most at risk are the elderly, young children, pregnant women, and people with compromised immune systems.
Consumers can only do so much to protect themselves. No amount of washing could expunge, for example, all the dangerous E. coli bacteria from spinach leaves, noted Sandra Eskin, director of Pew's Food Safety Campaign. And just last week, the FDA announced thousands of processed foods may contain a flavor enhancer that could be contaminated with salmonella. Although no illnesses have been reported, manufacturers already have recalled 56 products that contain the hydrolyzed vegetable protein; more recalls are expected. See the full list at www.foodsafety.gov.
All of which helps explain the Food Safety Campaign's advocacy of federal legislation to better regulate food production. Meanwhile, you can lower your risk through knowledge and safe food handling. Here are the basics that everyone needs to know:
What is it? Salmonella is the name of a group of bacteria that is the most common cause of food poisoning in the United States.
What are the symptoms? Diarrhea, fever, abdominal cramps, vomiting. Usually, symptoms last less than a week. Most people get better without treatment, but it can be serious in older adults, infants and the chronically ill.
Where does it lurk? Undercooked and raw eggs, poultry and meat, unpasteurized dairy products, raw fruits and vegetables such as alfalfa sprouts and melons.
What is it? Most types of E. coli are harmless, but the bacterium known as E. coli O157:H7 produces a toxin that can lead to kidney failure and sometimes death.
What are the symptoms? Severe diarrhea that is often bloody, abdominal pain and vomiting. Usually, people don't run much of a fever.
Where does it lurk? Beef (especially undercooked or raw hamburger), produce, raw milk, and unpasteurized juices and ciders.
What is it? Listeria are a bacteria that, unlike many other pathogens, can grow even when refrigerated.
What are the symptoms? Fever, muscle aches, and nausea or diarrhea. It is especially serious for pregnant women, who are much more likely than other healthy adults to get infected. In pregnancy, it can lead to premature delivery or stillbirth.
Where does it lurk? Unpasteurized dairy products like soft cheeses, sliced deli meats, smoked fish, hot dogs, pate, and deli-prepared egg, ham, seafood and chicken salads.
Staying safe: Follow four key practices
• Wash cutting boards, dishes and utensils with hot soapy water. Clean after preparing each food item, before you go on to the next.
• Rinse fresh fruits and vegetables under running tap water, including those with skins that are not eaten.
• Use paper towels to clean kitchen surfaces, or, if you use cloth towels, wash them frequently in the hot cycle of your washing machine.
• Don't cross-contaminate. Have one cutting board for fresh fruits and vegetables and another one for raw meat, poultry and seafood.
• Separate raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs from other foods in your grocery cart and bags and in your refrigerator.
• Use a food thermometer to make sure meat, poultry and egg dishes are thoroughly cooked.
• Cook eggs until the yolk and white are firm, not runny.
• Bring sauces, soups and gravy to a boil when reheating.
• Keep your refrigerator at 40° F or below; a freezer at 0° F or lower.
• Never let raw meat, poultry, eggs or freshly cut produce sit at room temperature more for than two hours before refrigerating (one hour when the outside temperature is above 90° F). Do the same with cooked foods.
• Never defrost food at room temperature. The safe way to defrost food is in the fridge, under cold water or in the microwave.