How to Avoid Foodborne Illness

Did you know that the medical term for an upset stomach is dysbiosis; it’s a term to describe an imbalance in the digestive system whether acute or chronic.   Microbes in the digestive system are common but when you have overgrowth, displacement or pathogenic disturbances it can wreak havoc on your health.   The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 1 in 6 Americans get sick from foodborne pathogens every year and an estimated 3000 Americans die. Yikes! Let’s examine what we can do to prevent this risk for our family.

First, there are a number of pathogens that can cause illnesses. Viruses such as rotavirus, parvoviruses (Norwalk) and adenovirus invade the small intestine mucosal lining and prevent the cells from absorbing nutrients.   This results in carbohydrate malabsorption and diarrhea.   Most viral dysbiotic outbreaks are self-limited and last from a few hours to a few days.   Bacteria can cause diarrhea by various mechanisms.   Invasive bacteria like salmonella, shigella, or H. pylori, invade the mucosa which causes an inflammatory reaction.   Cytotoxic bacteria like E. coli, and C. difficile produce cellular toxins that damage the mucosal surface, inhibiting protein synthesis or initiating the inflammatory cascade. Toxigenic bacteria like entercolitica or cholera produce protein enterotoxins that alter intestinal salt and water balance (without affecting the mucosa) leading to an osmotic diarrhea.   There are also a host of parasites that can cause dysbiosis including giardia, histolytica, microsporidium, and cryptosporidium.   Parasites frequently act as a mechanical barrier to absorption, directly injuring the intestinal mucosa, releasing exotoxins, eliciting an immunological reaction, and/or altering normal patterns of bowel motility.

Here is the CDC pie chart what foods are most likely to make you sick (from


Campylobacter – poultry and milk

E. coli – ground beef, fresh fruit and vegetables, unpasteurized apple cider

Listeria – deli meats, unpasteurized soft cheeses, produce

Salmonella – raw or undercooked eggs, poultry and meat or contaminated produce

Vibrio – raw oysters

Norwalk – sandwiches, salads, shellfish

Toxoplasma – meats

Ciguatera – fish

Hepatitis A – contaminated produce

There are a number of steps you can take to prevent risk to your health. Most risks of contamination come from unsanitary conditions rather than an inherit problem with a well cooked food item so ensuring proper care reduces risk greatly. Washing your hands and cleaning surfaces protects you by stopping the spread of contamination.   Be sure to wash your hands after using the restroom as well as wash your hands, utensils, cutting boards and counters after handling uncooked food.   To further reduce contamination from raw meat, eggs, produce or other ready to eat foods ensure separation of the items.  Use separate cutting boards if possible or wash them thoroughly between items and use.   Ensure meats go into plastic bags before putting them into your canvas or cloth grocery bags – you may just use that same bag for apples at the store a day later without thinking about it. Washing produce can also help. There are sprays and soaking items for sale at the store but I just use a little bit of vinegar in a sink of water and let my produce soak for 20 minutes prior to putting it in the fridge (and yes, I wash the sink with soap and water first).   Its best to wash fruit even if you are cutting it; salmonella on the outside of a cantaloupe was the cause of issues last year as the cutting knife transferred the bacteria to the inside flesh that was consumed. The last precautionary step is to ensure all foods are cooked to and stored at the right temperatures.   The faster you refrigerate left over food the better. The CDC recommends cooling all foods down to refrigerated temperatures within an hour to be safe.

Food safety isn’t just a concern for homeowners.   Growers and Farmers are looking at ways to decrease the risk of foodborne pathogens in their products as well; it is bad PR and costs a lot of money when an item is tainted and recalled. A report was just released in the journal of Applied and Environmental Microbiology stating some interesting facts for farmers. Farms that have a buffer zone between the fields and livestock operations or waterways have less salmonella contamination risk.   Irrigation within three days of collection increased the risk of listeria.   These findings will help farmers make changes to how produce is grown. Enlightened farming and careful handling can make a large impact on reducing risk.

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