Quick Guide to Food Poisoning

Food-borne illness, more commonly referred to as food poisoning, is the result of eating contaminated, spoiled, or toxic food. The most common symptoms of food poisoning include nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. In most cases of food poisoning, the food is contaminated by bacteria, such as Salmonella or Escherichia coli (E. coli), or a virus, such as the Norovirus.

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Signs and symptoms:

The symptoms of food poisoning usually begin within one to two days of eating contaminated food, although they may start at any point between a few hours and several weeks later.

The main symptoms include:

– feeling sick (nausea)
– vomiting
– diarrhoea, which may contain blood or mucus
– stomach cramps and abdominal (tummy) pain
– a lack of energy and weakness
– loss of appetite
– a high temperature (fever)
– aching muscles
– chills

In most cases, these symptoms will pass in a few days and you will make a full recovery.

How is food contaminated?

Food can become contaminated at any stage during production, processing or cooking.

For example, it can be contaminated by:

– not cooking food thoroughly (particularly meat)
– not correctly storing food that needs to be chilled at below 5C
– leaving cooked food for too long at warm temperatures
– not sufficiently reheating previously cooked food
– someone who is ill or who has dirty hands touching the food
– eating food that has passed its “use by” date
– the spread of bacteria between contaminated foods (cross-contamination)

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Foods particularly susceptible to contamination if not handled, stored or cooked properly include:

– raw meat and poultry
– raw eggs
– raw shellfish
– unpasteurised milk
– “ready-to-eat” foods, such as cooked sliced meats, pâté, soft cheeses and pre-packed sandwiches

Many types of germs and toxins may cause food poisoning, including:

– Campylobacter enteritis
– E. coli enteritis
– Toxins in spoiled or tainted fish or shellfish
– Staphylococcus aureus
– Salmonella
– Shigella

Infants and elderly people are at the greatest risk for food poisoning.

General Guidelines to Prevent Food Poisoning:

– Make sure that food from animal sources (meat, dairy, eggs) is cooked thoroughly or pasteurized. Use a thermometer to check the temperature of the food.

– Avoid eating raw or spoiled meats and eggs. Check expiration dates on meats and eggs before purchasing and again before preparing.

– Carefully select and prepare fish and shellfish to ensure quality and freshness.

– If you are served an undercooked meat or egg product in a restaurant, send it back for further cooking. You should also ask for a new plate.

– Be careful that you don’t let juices or drippings from raw meat, poultry, shellfish, or eggs contaminate other foods.

– Do not leave eggs, meats, poultry, seafood, or milk for extended periods of time at room temperature. Promptly refrigerate leftovers and food prepared in advance.

Wash your hands, cutting boards, and knives with antibacterial soap and warm to hot water after handling raw meat, poultry, seafood, or eggs. Wooden cutting boards are not recommended, because they can be harder to clean.

– Avoid unpasteurized milk or foods made from unpasteurized milk.

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– Do not thaw foods at room temperature. Thaw foods in the refrigerator and use them promptly. Do not refreeze foods once they have been completely thawed.

– Keep the refrigerator at 40 degrees Farenheit or lower, and the freezer at 0 degrees Farenheit or lower.

– Wash raw vegetables and fruits thoroughly before eating, especially those that will not be cooked. Avoid eating alfalfa sprouts until their safety can be assured. Methods to decontaminate alfalfa seeds and sprouts are being investigated.

– Drink only pasteurized juice or cider. Commercial juice with an extended shelf life that is sold at room temperature (juice in cardboard boxes, vacuum sealed juice in glass containers) has been pasteurized, although this is generally not indicated on the label. Juice concentrates are also heated sufficiently to kill bacteria.

– If you are ill with diarrhea or vomiting, do not prepare food for others, especially infants, the elderly, and those with weakened immune systems, because they are more vulnerable to infection.

Wash hands with soap after handling reptiles, turtles, birds, or after contact with human or pet feces.

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– Breastfeed your baby if possible. Mother’s milk is the safest food for young infants. Breastfeeding may prevent many food-borne illnesses and other health problems.

Those at high risk, such as pregnant women, people with weakened immune systems, infants, and the elderly should also:

– Avoid soft cheeses such as feta, Brie, Camembert, blue-veined, and Mexican-style cheese. (Hard cheeses, processed cheeses, cream cheese, and cottage cheese are safe.)
Cook foods until they are steaming hot, especially leftover foods or ready-to-eat foods, such as hot dogs.

– Although the risk of food-borne disease associated with foods from deli counters is relatively low, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems may choose to avoid these foods or thoroughly reheat cold cuts before eating.

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