Watch out for foodborne diseases this holiday

Dr Wendy-Gaye Thomas, MD

Sunday, December 16, 2018

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J amaica's recent suspension of the importation of romaine lettuce from the United States, because of the outbreak of E coli bacteria in lettuce in 11 US states, brings into sharp focus the fact that we are entering into a season of high consumption.

It's that time of year when the parties never seem to end. They're great occasions for exchanging goodwill and gifts – but not the dangerous bacteria that cause foodborne illness.

With an abundance of cooking taking place around the holidays, food safety is the most important ingredient everyone should be adding to their holiday menus. People are dealing with foods they don't often prepare outside of the holiday season, and which carry their own set of risks. For example, eggnog which uses raw eggs is a common one. Fresh eggs may contain salmonella bacteria that can cause an intestinal infection. Cooking can destroy these bacteria.

Salmonella infection usually occurs when a person eats food contaminated with animal or human faeces carrying the bacteria. Foods that are most likely to contain salmonella include raw or undercooked eggs, raw milk, contaminated water, and raw or undercooked meats, but these bacteria can also contaminate other foods such as fruits and vegetables. The most common symptoms of salmonella infection include diarrhoea, abdominal cramps and fever.

Other foodborne bacteria which may turn up at holiday tables include staphylococcus aureus, a bacterium commonly found on our skin and in our noses and throats. If it gets into food, it multiplies rapidly at room temperature to produce a toxin that causes illness within one to six hours. Thorough cooking kills the bacteria but doesn't get rid of the toxin. Staph can be lurking in party foods that are made by hand and require no additional cooking, such as meat or potato salads, creampies, and sandwich fillings. These bacteria can cause serious illnesses such as bloodstream infections, pneumonia, or bone and joint infections.

Then there are clostridium perfringens, commonly called the “cafeteria germ” because it tends to lurk in foods served in quantity and left out at room temperature. Meats, meat products, and gravy are the foods most often associated with illness caused by this bacteria. Symptoms typically include abdominal cramping, diarrhoea, vomiting, and fever. The symptoms usually go away within 24 hours.

Listeria monocytogenes may be found in cold foods that are not cooked, such as salads or food from the fridge. Listeria can live in meat, milk, butter, cream, yoghurt, and vegetables. Listeria causes an illness that looks like the flu. It can be particularly dangerous for pregnant women, unborn babies and newborn babies. Even a mild attack of this bacteria can cause a miscarriage, or premature birth or for a baby to get meningitis.

Because illness-causing bacteria can survive throughout the kitchen, it is important to keep utensils, cutting boards, surfaces, and hands clean to prevent cross-contamination. Caution dictates that you wash your hands for at least 20 seconds; wash utensils and cutting boards after each use; wash fruit and vegetables with mild bleach.

Here are some other ways that bacteria can spread easily through cross-contamination. For example, placing ready-to-eat food on a surface that held raw meat can spread illness-causing bacteria. This can be avoided by separating produce from poultry and meat. Use separate cutting boards and plates for meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, and ready-to-eat food. Keep meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs in a separate section of the grocery cart and the refrigerator.

There are appropriate temperatures that meat and poultry should reach to ensure that any illness-causing bacteria are killed. It is therefore recommended that you use a food thermometer. Keep hot food hot, at 140 degrees. Microwave thoroughly to 165 degrees.

Cold temperatures can inhibit the growth of certain illness-causing bacteria, which can grow in about two hours in perishable foods. You should, therefore, refrigerate perishable foods promptly, and freeze foods wherever possible or appropriate. You should not thaw or marinate raw foods on the counter. Leftovers which you do not plan to consume should be disposed of, rather than left on the counter before bacteria starts to grow.

Here are some additional food safety tips: When you go to the supermarket, buy cold foods last. Ask the packer to place raw meat, poultry, and seafood in a separate bag from other edible grocery items. Prepare uncooked foods before, from recipes requiring raw meat, to again reduce cross-contamination, and then store them out of the way as you prepare other dishes. Keep hot food hot and cold food cold, use chafing dishes or crock pots and ice trays. Always wash your hands, utensils, bowls, and other cutlery when preparing food. Use separate platters and utensils for raw and cooked meats and keep surfaces clean.

Be careful with leftovers. Bacteria can grow in perishable foods like meat, eggs, salads, and casseroles within two hours. Cold temperatures slow that growth. As you're eating with family and friends, be mindful of how long food has been sitting out and make sure you refrigerate/freeze leftovers that have been out for two hours. Throw away any perishable foods that have been at room temperature for two hours or more.

My final word: Eat safely this holiday period.

Dr Wendy-Gay Thomas, MD, is Group technical manager, Technological Solutions Limited, a Jamaican food technology company.

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