Foodborne illness (or food poisoning) happens when a person gets sick from eating food that has been contaminated by bacteria, viruses and parasites (foodborne pathogens). Health Canada estimates that more than 4 million Canadians suffer from foodborne illness each year – that’s 1 in 8! The common symptoms include stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and fever, but can lead to death in extreme situations. Some people may have food poisoning and not even know it!
If you think you have food poisoning, you should see a doctor as soon as possible. And if you have any concerns about restaurant food, you can report it to your local inspection authority.
So, what are some causes of food poisoning?
These bacteria are found in the intestines of poultry, cattle, swine, rodents, wild birds and household pets like cats and dogs. It can also be found in untreated surface water and manure. It is the most common type of bacteria involved in human illness, and the most common way of getting sick from this bacteria is by eating contaminated foods. C. jejuni can be killed by cooking food properly.
The bacterial spores that cause botulism are widespread in nature, commonly found in soil or dust. Botulism is a rare but serious paralytic illness caused by a nerve poison that is produced by the baterium C. botulinum. Foodborne botulism is caused by eating foods that contain the botulism toxin. Botulism is rare in Canada, and only tends to cause problems when certain foods are stored or prepared incorrectly. The most common way of getting botulism is by eating or drinking contaminated foods and beverages, like:
- improperly prepared low-acid, home-canned foods (like asparagus, beets, green beans, mushrooms, peppers)
- improperly smoked fish
- improperly prepared raw marine mammal meat (like whale, walrus, seal)
- non-refrigerated storage of low-acid fruit juices (like carrot juice)
- baked potatoes stored in aluminium foil
A wide variety of food can become contaminated with C. perfringens. Typically this bacterium will grow in foods that are high in starch or high in protein, such as cooked beans, meat products, thick soups and gravy. Leftovers that aren’t cooled and reheated properly may contain a lot of the bacteria – this pattern is common in cafeterias, hospitals, nursing homes and prisons. Symptoms may include abdominal bloating and increased gas, fatigue, loss of appetite and weight loss, muscle ache, nausea, diarrhea and severe abdominal pain. The usual onset time is 10-12 hours, and most symptoms subside within 24 hours, however, some can last for up to two weeks.
How do I avoid getting sick?
The great news about food poisoning is that it can often be avoided. These tips can help protect you and your family (or your customers, if you work in a restaurant):
- Cook food to a safe internal temperature using a digital thermometer
- Poultry and meat should be well cooked, not pink in the middle
- Buy shellfish only from reputable suppliers
- Drink water from a safe water supply
- Only buy clean and uncracked eggs
- Eat and drink only pasteurized juice, cider, milk and milk products
- When buying and storing groceries, keep raw meats separate from fruits, vegetables, cooked foods and ready-to-eat foods
- Wash your hands before handling any food
- Wash hands, cutting boards, counters, knives and other utensils after preparing raw foods
- Wash raw fruits and vegetables thoroughly with clean, safe running water before you prepare and eat them. Use a brush to scrub produce with firm or rough surfaces (like oranges, cantaloupes, potatoes and carrots)
- Never place cooked food on the unwashed plate that held raw meat, poultry or fish
- Keep pets away from food storage and preparation areas. Wash your hands well with soap and water after handling pet treats, pet food and pet toys, or after playing with or cleaning up after your pet.
- If you have been diagnosed with campylobacteriosis or any other gastrointestinal illness, do not prepare food or pour water for other people