Unpasteurized juice … raw sprouts … undercooked meat … uncooked eggs … raw oysters. Is this a formula for the latest trendy health shake? No, it’s more like a recipe for why 1 in 6 Americans gets food poisoning each year. But it goes beyond that to include foods we didn’t think we had to worry about, like bagged salads from Dole, Costco’s rotisserie chicken salad, tomatoes from Chipotle and — the sweet treat that punched Texans in the gut — Blue Bell ice cream.
According to Jill Elliott, a registered dietitian nutritionist with Medical City Dallas Hospital and Medical City Children’s Hospitals in Dallas, 128,000 Americans end up in the ER annually due to food poisoning from a smorgasbord of sources: deli meats, soft cheeses, cucumbers, spinach, even caramel apples and peanut butter. The list — or should we say listeria — goes on.
Many of these foods are supposed to be healthy for us, so how can we eat them and not get sick? First, it’s helpful to recognize the symptoms of food poisoning. If you’ve never had it, think of your worst bout with the stomach flu. The problem is, symptoms may appear almost immediately or they may take weeks to develop, so it’s often hard to pinpoint what you’ve contracted and where you may have picked it up unless you’re tracking everything you eat and drink.
A good rule of thumb is to seek immediate medical treatment if you suspect food poisoning because it can be much more serious than the flu. Infants, the elderly, pregnant women and those with a weakened immune system are especially at risk.
The second, and most important, thing we can do is practice contamination prevention measures. Elliott recommends these eight precautions:
- Wash hands and preparation surfaces thoroughly before touching food
- Cook foods thoroughly
- Set your refrigerator to 40⁰F and your freezer to 0⁰F (or lower)
- Drink and eat only pasteurized juices, milk and milk products
- Use separate cutting boards and preparation surfaces for meat and other foods
- Don’t ingest raw eggs
- Don’t eat prepared food that has been outside a refrigerator for more than two hours, or one hour in very hot weather
- Always rinse fruits and veggies and dry with a clean paper towel, even if they will be peeled
Why the extreme caution with produce? Cutting or biting into food that has bacteria on the outside will drive the bacteria deeper into the food. This is also true of meat, which is why you should insist on a well-done steak in a restaurant that tenderizes theirs by piercing it with sharp instruments, and why you should be equally wary of ground meat products, such as hamburgers.
If you’re not into grilling wait staff about their meat preparation procedures, you may want to grill at home instead. Researchers at Kansas State University found five “killer spices” that can make your ground beef (and other foods) safer and maybe even more delicious. These killer five include garlic, cinnamon, oregano, cloves and sage.
K-State killer spice “recipes”
A 1 percent ratio (2 to 5 teaspoons) of garlic powder to two pounds of ground beef kills 90-97 percent of E.coli.
A 3 percent ratio (2 to 5 tablespoons) of dried plum mixture (prunes) to 2 pounds of ground beef kills more than 90 percent of major food-borne pathogens, including E. coli, salmonella, listeria, Y. enterocolitica and staphylococcus. Plus, it adds antioxidants and makes a moister meatloaf.
Just 0.3 percent of cinnamon (roughly a piled-high teaspoon) to 64 ounces of apple juice kills about 99 percent of E.coli.
While killer spices can help protect you from killer bacteria, keep in mind they’re no substitute for a vigorous hand scrubbing and a fully cooked meal. You can also monitor current food poisoning outbreaks via the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s website.
If you do get a bad batch of something, one of our many Medical City Healthcare emergency locations has you covered. With average wait times posted online, if you do have an emergency, you can spend less time waiting and more time on the moments that matter most.
Find a fast Medical City Healthcare ER near you.
Jill Elliott, RDN, LD
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, Community Outreach Programs Medical City and Medical City Children’s Hospital
Jill Elliott has a passion for great food and engaging others in better nutrition. In her spare time, she can be found in her kitchen, slicing, dicing and cooking up appealing ways to include healthful, flavorful foods in everyday meals for the whole family. Teaching piano lessons and getting outside with her loyal canine companion are two of her favorite activities.