There are many causes of food poisoning. Everyone should be aware of the reasons why people get sick from food and the precautions they can take to prevent food borne illness. This page gives you basic information that could prevent a future outbreak of food poisoning - in your home, in a restaurant, at a picnic or church supper - or anywhere food is served.
Why do people get sick from food?
They may consume food that contains poisonous chemicals such as pesticides, lead, zinc, mercury, cadmium, antimony or copper.
They may eat poisonous plants such as toadstools, rhubarb leaves, berries from mistletoe or castor beans.
But the greatest cause of food poisoning is contamination by bacteria (germs) or parasites. Some of the more common germs are discussed below.
What bacteria or parasites cause food poisoning?
Staphylococcus is found in infected cuts, boils, pimples, etc. When this germ gets in food it produces a poison which makes people sick in two to four hours. It causes severe cramps, diarrhea and vomiting. Cooking or heating will not destroy this poison - it must be kept out of the food.
Salmonella is a germ often found in poultry products - eggs, chicken and turkey. It may also be found in other meats and milk products. People who eat food contaminated with the germ become ill with an infection. In addition to diarrhea, vomiting and cramps, victims also have fever. The ill effects of this germ generally become apparent about eight to 24 hours after the food is consumed.
Clostridium botulinum is a germ that grows most often in low acid foods that are home canned such as green beans, corn, beets and canned meat. If foods are not adequately sterilized in the canning process, the germ survives and produces a deadly poison which causes the victims to become ill. It takes from two hours to six days (usually 12 to 36 hours) for this illness called botulism to develop, and it can be fatal. Most home economists today recommend home canning with a pressure cooker to assure a temperature high enough to destroy the botulism germ. Home canned foods should be boiled for 15 minutes before serving to assure destruction of this extremely dangerous poison.
Streptococcus is the germ that causes "strep" throat. When a person with this condition coughs or sneezes on food or uses a tasting spoon to stir food, the food can become contaminated with the germ and make other people ill with sore throat, pain in swallowing, fever, headache and other symptoms. It takes from one to three days for this illness to develop.
Clostridium perfringens is a germ that grows in cooked meat and poultry that has stayed at room temperature for several hours or has cooled slowly. It is also found in gravy, stew and meat pie. Approximately eight to 24 hours after consuming food contaminated with this germ the victims suffer acute abdominal pain, gas and diarrhea.
Trichinella spiralis is a very small worm sometimes found in pork. If pork is not processed or cooked properly, the worm can invade the body tissue of people who consume this pork. This disease is known as trichinosis. It is easily prevented by cooking pork thoroughly until the meat appears white and there is no visible pink.
Precautions to prevent food borne illness
Obtain food from approved sources such as Grade A pasteurized milk and government inspected meat and poultry.
Don't handle or prepare food if you are ill or have inflamed (red) or infected cuts or boils on your hands. Other people may become victims of your illness.
Have good hand washing habits. The human intestinal tract is an important reservoir of infectious diseases so it is extremely important to wash your hands after going to the restroom or changing diapers.
Cook food properly. Poultry and pork products should always be cooked until well done. If you use a thermometer, cook poultry to an internal temperature of 165° Fahrenheit and pork to an internal temperature of 150° Fahrenheit.
Keep hot foods hot (135° Fahrenheit or above) and cold foods cold (41° Fahrenheit or below).
Keep kitchen equipment clean. It is particularly important to clean cutting boards and knives after handling raw foods and before processing cooked foods. Don't use cracked dishes or cooking utensils which have cracks and recesses that retain food particles. Dishes and utensils of this type cannot be effectively sanitized.
The foods that bacteria like best are meats, milk, eggs, fish and poultry. These are the foods that you must be extremely careful with - unless you want to make yourself and other people ill.
If in doubt, throw it out!
Thanks to the Missouri Department of Health for use of their pamphlet:
"Help Prevent Food Poisoning"