Public health authorities around the world are worried about the spread of foodborne disease and the emergence of new microbial strains entering our food supply. Contaminated food can cause diarrhea and dehydration, or more serious illnesses such as kidney failure or brain damage. Food poisoning can arise from bacterial toxins — such as those produced by Staphylococci or Clostridium Botulinum (which causes rare but deadly botulism, mostly from canned or bottled vegetables and meats) — or from bacteria that multiply in the body (such as Salmonelli or E. coli). Unlike food contaminated by mold or fungi, which looks and smells “bad” or rotten, food harbouring bacteria or their toxins may look fine, appear wholesome and smell normal, even though it is carrying deadly microbes. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) estimates that there are “millions of needless deaths” from foodborne illness around the globe each year. In developing areas, contaminated rivers, formula diluted with bacteria-laden water and poor sanitation compound the problem.
More and more foods contaminated
Surveys show that Salmonella, Listeria, Clostridium and other bacteria are contaminating ever more and different foods. For example, up to 80 per cent of chickens and other poultry are contaminated with Salmonella or Campylobacter by mechanized de-feathering and evisceration processes in which infected feces splatter the skin of the birds. Listeria bacteria are found in up to 15 per cent of soft-ripened cheeses; Yersinia bacteria are detectable in 20 per cent of raw (unpasteurized) milk products, Clostridium perfringens — sometimes called the “cafeteria bug” — is a frequent cause of food poisoning in re-warmed meats, casseroles, stews, pies and gravies; and Campylobacter jejuni bacteria, a recently discovered source of food poisoning, are now the chief contaminators of poultry, shellfish and unpasteurized milk. Chicken, turkey and other poultry should be well cooked and leftovers refrigerated, as left at room temperature any lingering bacteria multiply fast and next day’s turkey sandwich or casserole could make people ill. The problem is by no means confined to poultry, meat or dairy products. Food poisoning outbreaks in industrialized countries have been traced to such items as Belgian chocolates, bottled mushrooms, rice pudding, onion rings, bean sprouts, melon, specialty breads, orange juice and even frozen strawberries.
The alerting signs of food poisoning:
nausea, appetite loss;
possibly chills, fever.
The discomfort may begin within a few minutes to a few hours of consuming the contaminated food — or may only appear several days later when it’s no longer clearly linked to any particular food and might be self-diagnosed as 24-hour stomach flu. Foodborne illness often causes just a stomach ache and transient diarrhea, but it can be severe, even fatal — especially in the elderly, infants, pregnant women, diabetics, alcoholics and the immune-deficient.
Varied reasons for the rise in food poisoning
Experts blame many causes for the increasing incidence of food poisoning. The roots of the problem go back to the end of World War II and the rising popularity of meat — a favourite breeding ground for many microbes. With the demand for meat came a search for cheap animal fodder from tropical countries, where infection is rampant and bacteria spread into the food supply from contaminated animals. As noted by the World Health Organization (WHO), “Enormous quantities of animal feed were imported [into the West] and animals fed contaminated feeds have in turn contaminated the food supply.” Millions of bacteria-carrying animals across the world, housed in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions, contribute to the spread of foodborne disease. Data from the United Nations Environment Program show that 45 per cent of the world’s rivers, from which animals drink, are contaminated with fecal bacteria such as E. coli.
Large food processing plants, in which a single infected chicken (or other animal) can spew bacteria or viruses into a city’s poultry or meat supply, worsen the scene. The trend away from home cooking and the growth of fast food eateries, mass catering and pre-processed meals add to the spread of food poisoning. Almost half the food now consumed in the U.S. and Canada is eaten away from home or “ordered in.” Storage and extra handling increase food poisoning risks, especially among susceptible people — the elderly, young children, the ill and those with weak immune systems.