Food Poisoning: The Unwelcome Dinner Guest

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Food and drink
Poison Safety & Prevention

“It must be something I ate”. When you think of a hamburger, what comes to mind? Is it a delicious treat–hot, juicy and fresh from the grill? Or do you imagine “Montezuma’s Revenge” or some other unwelcome gastrointestinal upset? The prime causes of food-borne illness are a collection of bacteria with tongue-twisting names like Campylobacter jejuni, Salmonella, Staphylococcus aureus, Clostridium perfringens, Vibrio vulnificus, and Shigella just to name a few. These organisms can become unwelcome guest at the dinner table. They’re in a wide range of foods, including meat, milk and other dairy products, coconut, fresh pasta, spices, chocolate, seafood, and even water.

Egg products, tuna, potato and macaroni salads, and cream-filled pastries harboring these pathogens also are implicated in food-borne illnesses, as are vegetables grown in soil fertilized with contaminated manure.

Poultry is the food most often contaminated with disease-causing organisms. It has been estimated that 60 percent or more of raw poultry sold at retail probably carries some disease-causing bacteria. Bacteria are also often found in raw seafood such as oysters, clams, mussels, and scallops.

But that doesn’t mean you should stop eating. Just be smart about how you buy, store, prepare and serve food, and you’ll reduce the risk of food-borne illnesses. Careless food handling sets the stage for the growth of disease-causing “bugs.” For example, hot or cold foods left standing too long at room temperature provides an ideal climate for bacteria to grow. Improper cooking also plays an important role in food-borne illness.

Foods may be cross contaminated when cutting boards and kitchen tools that have been used to prepare a contaminated food, such as raw chicken, are not cleaned before being used for another food such as vegetables.


Common symptoms of food-borne illness include diarrhea, abdominal cramping, fever, headache, vomiting, and severe exhaustion. However, symptoms will vary according to the type of bacteria and by the amount of contaminants eaten. Symptoms may come on as early as a half-hour after eating the contaminated food or they may not develop for several days or weeks. They usually last only a day or two, but in some cases can persist a week to 10 days. For most healthy people, food-borne illnesses are neither long lasting nor life threatening.

When symptoms are severe, the victim should see a doctor or get emergency help. For mild cases of food poisoning, liquid intake should be maintained to replace fluids lost through vomiting and diarrhea. Sport drinks (or Pedialyte for small children), are especially good because they contain much-needed electrolytes.

Prevention Tips

The idea that food on the dinner table can make someone sick may be disturbing, but there are many steps you can take to protect your family and dinner guest. It’s just a matter of following basic rules of food safety.

Prevention of food poisoning starts with your trip to the supermarket. Don’t buy food in cans that are bulging or dented or jars that are cracked or have loose or bulging lids. Look for expiration dates and never buy outdated food. Check the “use by” or “sell by” date on dairy products and pick the ones that will stay fresh longest in your refrigerator. Choose eggs that are Grade A or better and that are refrigerated in the store. Make sure that none are cracked or leaking.

Save to the last frozen foods and perishables such as meat, poultry or fish. Always put these products in separate plastic bags so that drippings don’t contaminate other foods in your shopping cart. Take an ice chest along to keep frozen and perishable foods cold if it will take more than an hour to get your groceries home.

Safe Storage

The first rule of food storage in the home is to refrigerate or freeze perishables right away. Refrigerator temperature should be 40 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit and the freezer should be zero. Refrigerate or freeze leftovers in covered shallow (less than 2 inches deep) containers as soon as possible and always within 2 hours of cooking. Arrange items in the refrigerator or freezer to allow cold air to circulate freely. “When In Doubt, Throw It Out”


Wash hands with hot soapy water for at least 20 seconds before preparing, serving and eating food. People with open cuts, sores, vomiting or diarrhea should not handle food. Clean all food preparation surfaces that will come in contact with food. Wash fresh fruits or vegetables with plain water before eating or cooking. Wash hands, utensils, plates, cutting boards and countertops after contact with raw meat or poultry. Use plastic cutting boards rather than wooden ones where bacteria can hide in grooves. Serve cooked food on clean platters with clean utensils. Keep dishwashing sponges clean. Thaw frozen meat or poultry in the refrigerator or microwave, not on the countertop. Bacteria can grow on the outer layers of the food before the inside thaws. Always marinate food in the refrigerator.


Cook at recommended temperatures to kill bacteria: poultry-180 degrees F, beef-160 degrees F and pork-160 degrees F. Don’t taste meat, poultry, eggs, fish or any other food of animal origin when it is raw or during cooking. Cook eggs until the yolk and whites are firm. Cook foods as close to serving time as possible to limit bacterial growth. Cover and reheat leftovers to 165 degrees F before serving.

For more information about safe food preparation and prevention of food poisoning and certainly if that “Unwanted Dinner Guest” visits you–call your Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222.