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Bacterial food poisoning

image of sea urchin As you party into the wee hours this week, think twice before you do some late-night nibbling at the buffet table. One bite of crab dip or deviled eggs gone bad, and you may be moving the party to the bathroom - or the hospital. While food poisoning is often associated with summer barbecues and potato salad, the holiday season is just as risky. Think of all your food-centered gatherings between Thanksgiving and Valentine's Day, says Dr. Jeanne Martin, a nutritionist and director of the dietetic internship program at The University of Texas School of Public Health at Houston. "Food is often not prepared, transported, stored or served properly during big gatherings of people. Mishandling of food can occur unbeknownst to many."

The Gift that Keeps on Giving

Food poisoning happens when bacteria, viruses, parasites or toxins contaminate food. Harmful bacteria cause most outbreaks. Given the right conditions - an unwashed cutting board or serving dish left out too long - these bacteria may grow and multiply in your food, and make you sick to your stomach.

The most common bacteria that cause food poisoning are Campylobacter, Salmonella and E.coli. Both Campylobacter and Salmonella are commonly found in raw poultry. Salmonella, which may also contaminate eggs and seafood, has even been found in produce such as lettuce.

Undercooked Beef

E.coli is usually found in undercooked beef, but has also been found in produce. The harmful bacteria Vibrio vulnificus is a common cause of food poisoning in shellfish and oysters. Most cases of food poisoning caused by these bacteria feel similar to the "stomach flu" and may last a few hours or even several days. Symptoms can range from mild to serious and include abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fever and dehydration. Other cases of food poisoning may be more serious. Food poisoning caused by Listeria monocytogenes - found in unpasteurized dairy products, ready-to-eat meats and certain soft cheeses - can cause some pregnant women to miscarry. Clostridium botulinum (botulism), usually caused by improper canning, can cause death. A small percentage of people who get bacterial food poisoning also develop long-term illnesses as a result. For example, certain strains of E.coli can cause kidney failure in young children and infants. Salmonella can lead to reactive arthritis and serious infections. Listeria can cause meningitis and Campylobacter may help cause Guillain-Barre syndrome, a nervous system disorder that can cause paralysis.

Protect Your Guests

Thankfully, most cases of food poisoning can be avoided. By properly preparing and serving food, you can protect your guests and your reputation as a gracious and conscientious host. Keep it clean. First, prepare all food on a clean and disinfected surface. Wash your hands and surfaces that come in contact with food often, especially when preparing raw meat, poultry and seafood. Bacteria can spread in the kitchen and get on cutting boards, knives, sponges and countertops. Cook, then chill. Promptly refrigerate the foods you cook, to keep harmful bacteria from growing and multiplying. For instance, if you have just made a huge vat of hot stew and its very presence in your refrigerator will heat up your colder foods, place the entire pot in a sink full of ice and water to speed cooling. Then, get it in the refrigerator as soon as possible.

Think about what you drink. Some foods are more risky for food poisoning than others. Love eggnog? Buy the pasteurized version from the grocery store to be on the safe side. Traditional recipes for eggnog call for raw eggs, which can contain Salmonella. While your head's in the cooler, pick up some pasteurized apple cider. Unpasteurized juice may contain harmful bacteria. Open that food gift early. Be careful when serving mail-order food gifts that include meat, fish or other perishables like cheese, fruit and cheesecake. Refrigerate these gifts immediately when you receive them. Also, if the food is labeled, "keep refrigerated," make sure it is still in a chilled state when it arrives.

Keep hot food hot, cold food cold. "Food should not be left out for more than two hours in the "Danger Zone" of temperatures, from 40 degrees to 140 degrees Fahrenheit," Martin says. Use a food thermometer to check. Some warming trays or chafing dishes will only hold food at 110-120 degrees Fahrenheit. Cold foods should be kept at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or colder. Put plates of cold food on ice if food is going to stay on the buffet table longer than two hours.

Keep the food coming

When preparing a buffet, keep portions small, so food doesn't sit out long. Store cold back-up dishes in the refrigerator and keep hot dishes in the oven, set at 200-250 degrees. Replace all empty food bowls and platters with new, fresh ones. Don't add new food to an old serving dish. The dish was probably touched many times by your guests, and could be contaminated.

Protect Yourself

As a guest, you can do your part to reduce your risk for developing food poisoning, Martin says. "Wash your hands often. Eat foods that are hot, if they are meant to be hot, and cold, if they are meant to be cold," Martin says. "Do not eat lukewarm foods." Martin advises steering clear of foods like raw meats and fish and undercooked meats. Food containing a mix of several ingredients, such as potato salad, egg salad and tuna salad are often risky if they are not kept cold.

If You Get Sick

If you feel sick from something you ate, and your symptoms are severe, see a doctor or get emergency help. This is especially important for those who are immune-compromised, diabetic, heart patients, or have medical conditions that make you more vulnerable to food poisoning. For mild cases of food poisoning, "Drink plenty of liquids to replace fluids you lose through vomiting and diarrhea," Martin says. (Eggnog doesn't count as a fluid.)

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