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Foodborne illness: What you need to know

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prvention (CDC) reported on Aug 13 in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report that the U.S. suffers 76 million cases of foodborne illness each year.

In 2007, reported were a total of 1097 outbreaks resulting in 21,244 cases of fooborne illness and 18 deaths, according to the report.

Among the 18 deaths, 11 were attributed to salmonella (5), Listeria monocytogenes (3), E coli O157:H7 (2), norovirus (2), clostridium botulinum (1) and mushroom toxin (1).

Poultry was the most cause for foodborne illness accounting for 17%, followed by beef (16%) and leafy vegetables (14%).

Although foodborne illnesses rarely cause deaths compared to other causes of death, they can cause a great deal of inconvenience and loss of money and productivity.

What causes a foodborne illness can be bacterial, viral, parasitic, and chemical while the former two are most common causes.  

Listed below are the common pathogens, foodborne illnesses, symptoms and their sources cited from a report by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Noroviruses: The common names used to describe the foodborne illness include viral gastroenteritis, winter diarrhea, acute non-bacterial gastroenteritis, food poisoning and food infection.  Symptoms including nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, fever and headache may show up 12 to 48 hours after ingesting the viruses. Diarrhea is found more commonly in adults while vomiting is more common in children.  The common sources for the infection include raw produce, drinking water, uncooked foods, shellfish and cooked foods that are not reheated after contact with a tainted source such as food handler.  The foodborne illness can last 12 to 60 hours.

Salmonella:  What this pathogenic bacterium causes is salmonellosis.  Symptoms including diarrhea, fever, stomach pain, vomiting can show up 6 to 48 hours after ingesting tainted foods including eggs, poultry, meat, unpasteurized milk or juice, cheese, raw fruits and vegetables. The foodborne illness can last 4 to 7 days.

Listeria monocytogenes: This bacteria can cause listeriosis, which is characterized by the symptoms including fever, muscle aches, and nausea or diarrhea. Pregnant women may experience mild-flu like symptoms and the infection may lead to premature delivery or stillbirth. Elderly people or those with compromised immunity may develop bacteremia or meningitis. The gastrointestinal symptoms can show up 9 to 48 hours and invasive disease can result in 2 to 6 weeks. The sources of this foodborne illness include unpasteurized milk, soft cheese made of unpasteurized milk, ready-to-eat deli meats. The duration varies.

E coli or Escherichia coli: There are two types of e coli-related foodborne illness.  One, which is so called e coli infection, is caused by E coli producing toxin. The symptoms such as watery diarrhea, stomach pain and some vomiting manifest 1 to 3 days after ingesting water or food tainted with human feces. The symptoms can last 3 to 7 or more days.

Another type of e coli related foodborne illness is caused by E coli O157:H7. It is commonly known as hemorrhagic colitis or E coli O157:H7 infection. The symptoms including severe diarrhea, stomach pain, and vomiting, show up 1 to 8 days after ingesting undercooked beef, unpasteurized milk or juice, raw fruits and vegetables, and tainted water. Usually, the infection does not cause fever. Children are at higher risk and the disease can lead to kidney failure. The illness can last 5 to 10 days.

Clostridium botulism:  This pathogenic bacterium causes botulism, which accompanies symptoms including vomiting, diarrhea, blurred vision, double vision, difficulty in swallowing, and muscle weakness. The symptoms can show up 12 to 72 hours and the duration varies.  The common sources of contamination include canned foods, particularly home-canned vegetables, fermented fish, baked potatoes in aluminum foil and bottled garlic.

Many other bacterial and viral organisms can cause other types of foodborne illnesses.

The FDA advises that consumers do the following to prevent foodborne illness:

1) Wash hands and surfaces often;
2) Cook to proper temperatures;
3) Don't mix cooked with uncooked foods or in other words, don't cross-contaminate;
4) Refrigerate foods that are not expected to be used in a couple of hours. Make sure that the refrigerator temperature is at 40 oF or below and freezer temperature is at 0 F or below.

By David Liu
(This article may contain some content from a FDA report)