Last year it was peanut butter. Last month it was eggs. Who knows what food-borne illness outbreak will hit us this month. Seems like outbreaks are coming at us faster than New Jersey-based reality TV shows these days. But besides satisfying morbid curiosity by checking out what's cooking on the Center for Disease Controls Foodborne Illness website, is there anything you can do or learn that will help you avoid the cesspool of bacteria and viruses that are swimming around your food? Consider this a quick primer on what kind of crap (sometimes literally) makes us sick and how you can avoid it on when you can.
There's nothing campy about campylobacter, bacteria found in the bellies of animals that finds its way onto raw poultry and in milk. The CDC says it's the number one bacterial cause for diarrhea. Eating undercooked chicken or just having raw chicken drip on other food are the most common ways to take in the bacteria. Make sure to keep things stored appropriately in freezers (chicken at bottom) and cook things thoroughly to avoid. Also drink pasteurized products.
Raw milk drinkers in Colorado (goat's milk) and Wisconsin were hit with campylobacter outbreaks last year. About 60 people were infected with no deaths resulting.
Botulism is a muscle-paralyzing disease caused by the bacteria named Clostridium botulinum--that's right the same junk everybody is injecting into their faces. Most commonly found in tainted canned goods it will lead to a host of ugly symptoms (kind of like botox) including slurred speech, drooping eyelids and blurred vision. Extreme cases lead to paralysis of breathing muscles, and when you can't breathe you die. Always check your canned goods to make sure they are not dented or smell nasty.
Botulism outbreaks from commercial canned products have reduced in recent years but there was one discovered in 2007 for Castleberry Food Company which makes a variety of chili sauce.
3) Listeria Hysteria
Listeria is less common than other foodborne illnesses but is probably the most dangerous. It can cause miscarriages and death and is found in ready to eat items like cheese, fish and meat products. Keep items stored appropriately and sanitize storage surfaces to avoid cross contamination.
In 2002, Pilgrim's Pride brand of processed chicken was found to contain listeria and over 27 million pounds had to be recalled but not before 7 people died and it caused 3 miscarriages.
2) E. coli
E. coli just sounds rotten and it is. It's a bacteria spread when food or drink is contaminated with microscopic amounts of feces (that would be poop). Those infected will usually get sick 3-4 days after eating tainted meat and it causes a bunch of nasty stuff like bloody diarrhea and abdominal paints. Severe cases cause heavy bleeding, kidney failure and death. Avoid by washing food well and cooking it even better. So that you know, this is the most common cause of Montezuma's Revenge.
Meat giant Westland/Hallmark, which supplies beef to 150 school districts, had to recall 143 million pounds of beef in 2008 just because of the mere threat of E. coli when it was discovered that cattle hadn't been inspected before being slaughtered and sent to our children to eat. Nestle had to recall 300,000 packs of toll house cookie dough in 2009 because of an E.coli contamination that made 65 people sick.
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Salmonella is like the McDonald's of foodborne illnesses. It's everywhere and it's bad for you. It's the most common source of foodborne illness and lives in the intestines of all kinds of animals. If you've got it you'll be running a fever and to the bathroom.
Not counting this last case of egg-spread salmonella, there have been a bunch of other ugly outbreaks, including last year's peanut butter recall of close to 4,000 different products from more than 360 different companies. Six deaths were blamed on the outbreak, and 470 got really bad cases of the runs, heaves and fever.