Foodborne Illness and How to Avoid Making Others Sick

By Brian Doerschuk – Gleaners Nutrition Education Team

Impacts of Foodborne Illness

Foodborne illness impacts millions of people worldwide. In fact, roughly 48 million people in the US alone are estimated to be affected by foodborne illness on a yearly basis, 128,000 people are hospitalized, and 3,000 people die (CDC). There are many different types of foodborne illnesses and even more causes of them. While it’s important to know some of the various illnesses, it’s more important to understand how to prevent them from happening to you and your family. Foodborne illness can be prevented by following 4 steps in the kitchen: Clean, Separate, Cook, and Chill.

What are Some Ways in which Foodborne Illness is Spread?

One of the major causes of foodborne illness is cross-contamination, which we discussed on our previous blog. When pathogens (harmful bacteria or viruses) are transmitted from one surface to another, often unintentionally, it can make people very sick. Let’s walk through a scenario. A person is preparing tacos in the kitchen and uses their bare hands to remove ground beef from the package and into the frying pan. Next, instead of washing their hands, they wipe them on a towel and proceed to start cutting lettuce. Unbeknownst to the cook, the beef had E. coli present, a very dangerous pathogen. While cutting it, the person has now spread E. coli to the lettuce which will be served raw on top of the tacos. Additionally, the towel that was used to wipe their hands has transferred E. coli bacteria to clean dishes when they were dried. To top it all off, this person will be hosting a large dinner party for their extended family in which they will eat tacos with contaminated lettuce served on the contaminated plates. Situations like this are how outbreaks occur, which is when two or more people are diagnosed with the same illness from a shared source. In this scenario, cleaning and separating did not take place.

One way to reduce the chance of contracting a foodborne illness is by cooking foods to their proper internal temperature. Different foods and meats require different internal temperatures to ensure that illness causing bacteria are killed. The best way to ensure this is by using a food thermometer. The opposite of cooking is cooling, which is equally important for helping to reduce the chances of developing dangerous pathogens which could lead to a foodborne illness. The temperature danger zone is the range of temperatures where bacteria can actively grow and thrive. This range is between 41°F and 140°F. It’s very important to keep food in this temperature range for as little time as possible to prevent this growth of bacteria. Refrigerated foods should be prepped quickly if removed from refrigeration and cooked food leftovers should be placed into refrigeration as soon as possible to help cool the product quickly and minimize the time spent in the danger zone.

Cooking and Working While Infected with Foodborne Illness

               Another way that foodborne illness can spread is through cooking or preparing food while you are sick. If you are experiencing symptoms of fever, vomiting, or diarrhea, it is best not to prepare food, especially if it is for others. Many foodborne illnesses are spread through not properly washing one’s hands after a vomit or diarrhea event or properly cleaning up an area where either of these events occurred. Germs can spread easily to the food and sicken even more people. If you work in a job preparing food, the law requires you to exclude yourself from work if you have been diagnosed with certain foodborne illnesses including Norovirus, Hepatitis A, Shigella, E. coli and Salmonella. Excluding yourself while you are sick, and washing your hands thoroughly even when you are not, is imperative to preventing the spread of foodborne illness and keeping your family, friends, and colleagues healthy.

               Foodborne illness is very serious and can harm many people if precautions aren’t followed. Proper cleaning, separation, cooking, and cooling will help to ensure that bacteria isn’t given a chance to grow and spread. Moreover, not working with food if you are sick with nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea will help to ensure a safe dining experience for you, your family, and your guests.


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Bacteria Photo by CDC on Unsplash