Food poisoning has grabbed plenty of attention lately and ranks second only to the common cold in frequency of occurrence.
The very young, the chronically ill and the aged are the most seriously afflicted and have higher death rates. This is despite a century or so of medical progress and the sincere efforts at prevention by local, state and federal health agencies. Ensuring a safe and healthy food supply is a huge, ongoing challenge.
Skipping viral and parasitic causes of food illness, there are basically two types of bacterial food poisoning.
First is one class of bacteria – found in contaminated food – that produces toxins that “poison” the victim, causing abdominal cramping, nausea, vomiting and/or diarrhea. The onset of symptoms is rapid – often in just a few hours, and they usually last for a day or less.
Botulism, a paralyzing disorder, is caused by the C. botulinum toxin. This is the most potent bacterial toxin known, frequently fatal and often the result of improperly home-canned food, such as fruits, vegetables and condiments. The good news: Botulism is very rare; I have never seen it, nor has any physician I know.
A more familiar illness is caused by the staphylococcus toxin, exemplified by that yummy, mayonnaise potato salad that has been sitting for hours on a hot, Fourth of July picnic table. Bacteria in food thrive in warmer temperatures. Food poisoning is a diagnostic certainty if people begin throwin’ and goin’ almost simultaneously shortly after a summer picnic – or any time of year.
The second type of bacterial food poisoning is more of a direct bacterial illness than a “poisoning.” Recently, 45 cases of infection, from the bacterium campylobacter, were traced to raw milk consumed by people in six Utah counties.
Also recently, there was another raw-milk scare in Michigan, where it is illegal to peddle unpasteurized milk. Members of a “herd share program,” whereby people buy shares in a cow, became sick from E. coli. On the Internet, you can search “Real Raw Milk Facts” for selected horror stories.
Other sources of food poisoning are legion and occur across the food spectrum: listeria from cantaloupes from eastern Colorado; E. coli in bagged spinach from California farms; salmonella in turkeys, chickens, eggs and peanut butter. The list is endless. There is nowhere to hide.
Almost all food preservation methods have flaws and impacts on food quality. One – food irradiation – has been around for half a century. Being free of harmful bacteria and with virtually no impact on quality, irradiated food has been on NASA’s menu for space flights since the 1960s.
On terra firma, with blessings from the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, irradiation has been used, though not universally, on beef, pork, poultry, wheat, flour, potatoes, fruits and vegetables.
www.alanfraserhouston.com. Dr. Fraser Houston is a retired emergency room physician who worked at area hospitals after moving to Southwest Colorado from New Hampshire in 1990.