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Fighting Foodborne Illnesses
Hamburgers, hot dogs, potato salad and coleslaw—all summertime staples that go along with cookouts, picnics and other outdoor gatherings. But these taste bud tantalizers can also unknowingly harbor bacteria if not handled, served or stored properly. Foodborne illnesses can lurk in anything from meat to milk and seafood to sprouts. The Food and Drug Administration is investigating a multistate outbreak of E. coli illnesses believed to be linked to romaine lettuce in and around the Yuma, Arizona, growing region. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), five people have died and nearly 200 people have become ill in almost three dozen states due to the same strain of E. coli. And it seems cereal can be affected as well, with a recent recall of Honey Smacks cereal due to potential salmonella contamination that’s sickened more than 70 people.
Salmonella and E. coli are just two of more than 250 foodborne illness diseases. Each year, the CDC estimates 48 million people get sick from a foodborne illness—nearly 130,000 are hospitalized and about 3,000 die. Most illnesses come from infections caused by a variety of bacteria, viruses and parasites. Common symptoms can include diarrhea, vomiting, stomach pain or abdominal cramping, nausea and head and body aches.
Germs to Know
Some of the top germs to know that cause illnesses from food eaten in the United States include the following:
When to See a Doctor
If symptoms are not severe, then the at-home treatment for foodborne illnesses, in general, is to drink plenty of fluids. However, “if you can’t take in fluids to replace what you are putting out either by vomiting or diarrhea, that’s when you should go to the doctor,” Sears says. Also, if you develop a high fever, blood in stools, diarrhea that lasts more than three to five days or dehydration—marked by a decrease in urination, dry mouth and throat or dizziness—then a trip to the doctor is also warranted. Sears says the people at highest risk for complications or even death are those who are young or older. “You may also need antibiotics depending on how sick you are, although the vast majority of people do not typically need antibiotics, and, for some types of foodborne illnesses, antibiotics are contraindicated,” Sears says.
Prevention at Johns Hopkins
Here at Johns Hopkins, keeping the food—whether for patients, visitors, staff or students—safe from contamination is a priority. “Hospital food service needs to maintain a very high standard because of the immunocompromised patients who are served,” says Angelo Mojica, senior director of food and dining at the Johns Hopkins Health System. “For example, we have cancer patients and burn patients who are at higher risk.” Food and dining services departments at the health system and The Johns Hopkins University have regular inspections by the state or local health department. They also work with a food safety auditing company that assesses our practices and helps ensure readiness for health inspections. Food service workers are also trained in proper food handling, cooking, storage and sanitation techniques, and managers receive additional certification in food safety measures.
Many food items, such as produce, at both the health system and university are also locally sourced. According to Ian Magowan, dining programs manager at The Johns Hopkins University, 30 percent of the university’s food comes from local producers within a 250-mile radius. “I take pride in the fact we know a lot of our producers,” says Magowan. “We go to that location and determine the food’s quality. We don’t just buy because of cost. It is a good sense of reassurance that we know our farmers, some on a first name basis.” Magowan also says food is often turned away before it gets through the doors at the university if the quality isn’t up to standards. “We turn away more food at the loading dock than we do in the facility,” Magowan says. “We will spot check temperatures of food, such as dairy products like milk. If anything is not at the right temperature, we turn the food away.”
In case of a food recall, vendors will contact the food and dining services departments at both the health system and university, and team members will, in turn, pull the food from their shelves. “We want to ensure that any potentially harmful food items are removed from production and discarded as necessary,” Mojica says. While Johns Hopkins hasn’t had any of the romaine lettuce believed to be associated with the recent E. coli outbreak, Mojica says his team received a number of phone calls from concerned people who wanted to know if the lettuce was safe.
Prevention at Home
Preventing foodborne illnesses in your own home also begins with practicing safe food handling, preparation and storage measures. The general rule is cool foods should be kept cool; warm food should be kept warm. Sears recommends not leaving food out for more than two hours—though, she says, you wouldn’t want to leave food in the direct sun for that long if you are at an outdoor barbecue, for example. “The bacteria that can contaminate and then make people sick can double their population in 20 minutes, so they really multiply fast” Sears says. “The potato salad at a picnic is a classic example of something that can cause what’s called staphylococcal food poisoning, a vomiting illness, predominantly.”
Here are additional tips to prevent foodborne illness: