Don't Eat the Potato Salad

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Don’t eat the potato salad . . . unless you know it’s safe! The end of summer, Labor Day outings, final days at the beach—all occasions for cookouts, picnics, and beach parties with family and friends. Unfortunately, they are also occasions for getting a stomach bug from improperly handled or stored food.

To keep yourself and others from getting sick, take a few moments to review what causes “food poisoning” and some food safety tips.

Foodborne Illnesses

The following organisms commonly cause foodborne illness or “food poisoning”:

  • Norovirus. Many persons have never heard of this virus, but it affects over 5 million people per year. It leads to inflamed stomach and intestines and results in stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Proper hygiene after using the toilet or changing diapers and safe food handling will prevent most infections.
  • Salmonella. This bacterial infection causes abdominal cramps, diarrhea, and fever, usually within 12-72 hours. Most people recover without medical treatment, but sometimes severe diarrhea requires treatment or hospitalization. If the infection spreads, it can cause death. Very young, elderly, and immune-compromised persons are most at risk for severe infection.
  • Clostridium perfringrens. This bacterium causes about 1 million infections per year. Diarrhea occurs 6-24 hours after infection, but usually without vomiting or fever. Symptoms last about 24 hours, and most people recover without medical treatment. Very young or elderly persons can experience more severe symptoms that require treatment.
  • Campylobacter. This bacterium causes diarrhea (sometimes bloody), abdominal cramping, and fever 2-5 days after exposure. Symptoms last 1-2 weeks. If infection spreads to the bloodstream, usually in immune-compromised persons, it can become life-threatening.
  • Staphylococcal aureus. The staphylococcal bacterium produces toxins that cause vomiting, nausea, abdominal cramping, and diarrhea within 30 minutes to 6 hours of exposure. Since the toxins are resistant to heat and salt, they can survive cooking. Infections typically occur in foods that people handle but do not cook (sliced meat, puddings, pastries, and sandwiches). Contaminated food does not smell or look spoiled.
  • Escherichia coli (E. coli). Most E. coli bacteria are harmless or even beneficial, but some cause diarrhea (sometimes bloody), abdominal cramping, vomiting, urinary tract and other infections. While most infected persons get better in 5-7 days, some strains of E. coli cause a life-threatening condition that requires medical attention. If you have diarrhea that lasts for more than 3 days or is accompanied by high fever, blood in the stool, or so much vomiting that you cannot keep liquids down and you pass very little urine, go to an urgent care clinic or other health care provider.
  • Listeria monocytogenes. This bacterium causes a serious infection, Listeriosis, that is especially dangerous for pregnant women and persons over 65. Although there are only about 1,600 cases per year, the mortality rate for those infected is about 16%. Foods most at risk for contamination include unpasteurized dairy products (especially soft cheeses), raw sprouts, and melons. Persons at high risk should probably avoid these foods.

Most of the time, foodborne illnesses will not require medical attention. But young children, elderly persons, and anyone whose immune system is compromised can develop more severe infections and symptoms that can become life-threatening.

Basic Food Safety

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Clean, Separate, Cook, Chill. This should be the mantra of every person who handles, prepares, and cooks food. Heed these four rules and you will eliminate nearly all foodborne illnesses from your life. It’s really that simple.

Still, a few specific tips will make safe food handling easier and more effective.

Potato Salad, Eggs, and Dairy

While potato salad serves as a primary example, other salads that include mayonnaise, eggs, and dairy products need special attention.

  • Keep prepared salads cold—that means 40ºF or cooler—in the refrigerator or ice chest until they are served.
  • No more than 2 hours (1 hour if surrounding temperature is 90º or higher) after serving, these foods should be chilled again. Remember, many bacteria thrive in warm, moist environments.
  • Even better, place serving dishes or pans for these foods on a bed of ice while they sit out.
  • If these dishes sit out more than 1 or 2 hours (see above), throw the food out! Better safe than sorry!
  • Rinse all produce under running tap water before using or packing it in a cooler.

Chicken, Beef, Pork, and Seafood

Favorites for outside grilling, raw meats require special handling.

  • Use separate cutting boards for animal products only, and wash these surfaces often with warm, soapy water.
  • When handling raw meats, wear disposable, vinyl gloves that you discard before touching other surfaces, utensils, or food.
  • If gloves are not available, wash your hands thoroughly (at least 20 seconds) before and after handling raw meat.
  • Marinate meats safely in the refrigerator. If you want to use some of the marinade as a sauce, reserve a portion ahead of time and separate from raw meat. Never reuse marinade that has been in contact with raw meat.
  • Cook food thoroughly (see chart), and use a meat thermometer to check (you can’t always tell by looking).
  • Keep cooked meats hot while serving. As with cold foods, do not let cooked meats sit out more than 1-2 hours.
  • Never use platters, dishes, or utensils that have touched raw meats to serve food after cooking unless such items have been thoroughly washed. Not heeding this rule is a major cause of cross-contamination and illness.


Cleanliness and Storage

Keeping yourself, dishes, utensils, and preparation surfaces clean, while storing food properly, will prevent most foodborne illness.

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  • Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds in warm, soapy water and before, during, and after handling food. Handwashing after handling raw meat, but before touching other food, utensils, or surfaces, is especially important.
  • Similarly, clean food preparation surfaces—countertops, cutting boards, refrigerator shelves—often. Be especially careful to avoid cross-contamination from raw meats on such surfaces.
  • A consensus seems to be building to avoid antibacterial soaps. There is little evidence that they help prevent bacterial infection, and some evidence that they might contribute to antibacterial resistance.
  • Use separate cutting boards and other surfaces to prepare raw meats and keep them separated from surfaces on which fruits and vegetables are prepared.
  • Consider using disposable paper towels for cleaning food preparation surfaces instead of sponges that can harbor nasty bacteria. If you use sponges, keep them as clean as possible and toss them in the trash often.
  • Also consider using disposable vinyl gloves for handling raw meat. Toss them in the trash before touching other utensils, surfaces, or food.
  • Store raw meats in leak-proof containers and separate from vegetables and fruits.
  • Store fruits, vegetables, meats, eggs, and dairy products properly, usually at 40ºF or lower. (Yes, eggs in the U.S. should be refrigerated.)
  • Do not thaw meat on the counter. Meat should be thawed in the refrigerator or, more quickly, in a microwave oven (follow instructions). If left on the counter to thaw, raw meat quickly becomes a site for bacterial growth.

Be safe this Labor Day and on other occasions when you cook out! Your family will thank you for being fussy about food safety. If, despite your best precautions, you or others become ill, monitor the symptoms. If diarrhea is severe and long-lasting or if vomiting prevents ingestion of fluids, seek medical attention.

And remember, we at Kathy’s Urgent Care are here to help. If you live or work near one of our two convenient locations, just walk in. We’re open 7 days and evenings every week.

Authored by Dr. Brown.