Wellness Tips

Doctor shares advice on how to prevent food poisoning


The Wisconsin-based company American Foods Group, doing business as Green Bay Dressed Beef, has recalled more than 58,000 pounds of raw ground beef due to concerns of possible contamination with the bacteria Escherichia coli, better known as E. coli, according to a Friday alert posted by the US Department of Agriculture.

The recall follows recent warnings issued by federal health officials about foodborne illnesses, including an alert for clinicians by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to be on the lookout for infections due to the flesh-eating Vibrio vulnificus bacteria, which caused at least five deaths on the East Coast this summer.

All of this has led me to look into foodborne illnesses and how people can improve food safety practices. What exactly is food poisoning? What can cause it? What are common symptoms? And, crucially, how can people prevent foodborne illnesses?

For this discussion, I turned to our CNN wellness medical expert, Dr. Leana Wen, who is an emergency physician and professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health. She previously served as health commissioner of Baltimore, where her responsibilities included overseeing food safety.

CNN: What is food poisoning? Is it the same thing as a foodborne infection?

Dr. Leana Wen: Those two terms are often used interchangeably. When people become ill from the food they eat, this is generally due to infections occurring after ingesting food or drink that has been contaminated with infectious organisms such as bacteria, viruses or parasites. Foodborne illness also includes allergic reactions and other circumstances in which food is the carrier of the allergen or toxin.

According to the CDC, 31 major pathogens cause around 9 million episodes of illness, nearly 56,000 hospitalizations and more than 1,300 deaths each year.

CNN: What are the most common organisms that cause foodborne infections?

Wen: Norovirus is the most frequent pathogen implicated in foodborne infections in the United States. This is a highly contagious virus. It can be spread through food and drink. The virus can also be spread from person to person by sharing utensils with an infected person and through handling objects that an infected person has touched and then touching your mouth.

Other common pathogens that cause foodborne illnesses include bacteria such as salmonella, campylobacter, listeria and E. coli, and parasites like toxoplasma.

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Washing vegetables and fruits under running water is one way to reduce the spread of foodborne illness, CNN wellness medical expert Dr. Leana Wen said.

CNN: What are the most common symptoms of foodborne infections?

Wen: Common symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain. Depending on the infectious organism involved, the individual may also develop fevers, body aches and other flu-like symptoms.

CNN: When should someone go to the doctor if they think they have a foodborne illness?

Wen: Most foodborne illnesses can be treated at home and will resolve on their own. It’s crucial to drink plenty of fluids and prevent dehydration.

Reasons to seek medical assistance include inability to keep up fluid intake due to vomiting or severe diarrhea and signs of becoming too dehydrated, such as feeling dizzy when standing, decreased urination, high fever, persistent diarrhea lasting more than three days and bloody diarrhea.

CNN: Could you talk specifically about E. coli and Vibrio vulnificus, the two bacteria that have been in the news lately?

Wen: E. coli live in the intestines of people and animals. Most forms of the bacteria are harmless, but some can cause illness. There is a particular kind of E. coli known as Shiga toxin-producing E. coli, or STEC, that has been implicated in serious foodborne illness outbreaks. Exposed individuals could get bloody diarrhea and even kidney failure. Treatment consists of supportive care for symptoms and fluids for hydration. It’s estimated that about 265,000 infections of STEC happen in the US every year.

The Vibrio bacteria causes around 80,000 illnesses around the country each year. Most illnesses are due to eating raw or undercooked shellfish, in particular oysters. People who have an exposed open wound could also become infected through swimming in salt water or brackish water. Infections can be treated with antibiotics and fluids.

CNN: What are some common mistakes people make in food preparation that could be dangerous?

Wen: Undercooking meat is a common and serious problem. Infectious organisms may not be killed at lower temperatures. I highly recommend getting a good meat thermometer to measure the internal temperature of the food you are cooking. The federal government has an excellent resource on what internal temperatures different kinds of meat and poultry should be cooked to.

Another common problem is neglecting to wash vegetables and fruits. Even if you are going to peel them, you should wash them first under running water. It’s not necessary or advisable to use soap, dishwashing liquid, disinfectants or other solutions.

Be aware of what containers and utensils are in contact with raw meat. Do not put salad items or cooked meat into these containers. Also, do not wash other uncooked meat or raw seafood in your sink. That could spread bacteria, and you could inadvertently contaminate other food.

CNN: Lots of people are still cooking outdoors. Any advice for safe grilling practices?

Wen: Cooked meat should be kept at 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60 degrees Celsius) or higher until serving. Conversely, meat and poultry should be refrigerated until ready for use. They should only be taken out just before placing on the grill.

If you’re going to use a cooler in lieu of a refrigerator, make sure to use an insulated one with enough ice to keep the contents at 40 F (4.4 C) or lower. It’s best to store meat at the bottom of the cooler and also keep it in a separate container or a tightly sealed zip-top bag to keep it from contaminating other items.

Bring plenty of plates and utensils, and make sure you clearly separate the ones used to touch raw meat from other items.

Handwashing is so critical. You don’t want to touch raw meat with your hands only to then make a salad. Also, many foodborne illnesses are transferred from other infected people. Making sure you wash your hands regularly with soap will reduce cross-contamination.

CNN: What about leftovers? Are they safe to eat?

Wen: Perishable food should not be left out for more than two hours. If the temperature around you is above 90 F (32.2 C), the food should be refrigerated within one hour.

CNN: Are there some people who should take extra precautions?

Wen: People involved in making and serving food should be extra cautious, as they have the potential to infect many people. In addition, there are some individuals who are most likely to suffer ill effects if they were to have food poisoning. Those are older people, young children, pregnant people and those with immunocompromising medical conditions. These folks should take additional precautions to reduce their risk of foodborne illness.

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