September is Food Safety Month

September is Food Safety Education Month

September is National Food Safety Education Month! The National Restaurant Association created this educational event in 1994. The goal for the month is to heighten awareness about the importance of food safety through education to reduce the risk of foodborne illness (a.k.a. food poisoning). Today’s lesson will include a little history of foodborne illness, some myths and facts, and what you can do to increase safety in preparing and eating safe foods.

Astoundingly, the Centers for Disease and Prevention (CDC) estimates that one in six Americans experience sickness from food each year in the US. Ninety percent of illnesses are from bacterial contaminants. While most cases of food-related illnesses are not serious and last only a few days, it is difficult know which could become more serious.

Contamination can happen at any point as food travels from the farm to our tables. Everyone is at risk of food poisoning, but some groups are at higher risk than others. Illness may involve one or more symptoms: nausea, vomiting, stomach cramping, diarrhea, chills and fever. High- risk groups include the elderly, children, pregnant women and immune compromised people.

Elderly are at an extremely high risk for hospitalization and death from foodborne illness. This is because as we age, organs and body systems go through changes and become weaker. The gastrointestinal tract (GI) may hold onto food for a longer time, which slows emptying, allowing more bacteria to grow. Underlying chronic conditions, such as diabetes, cancer and some forms of arthritis may also increase risks.

Is foodborne illness on the rise?

People have been getting sick from eating unsafe food for as long as people have been eating food. Researchers have documented food poisoning throughout history. University of Maryland researchers believe that Alexander the Great died in 323 B.C. from typhoid fever, which is Salmonella Typhi, bacteria found in contaminated food and water even today. Additionally, contaminated rye grain may have been the culprit in the Salem witch-hunt, as colonists exhibited unfamiliar symptoms attributed to witchcraft.

In modern history, most adults remember the Jack in the Box incident of 1993, when four children died from E. coli 0157H7 in contaminated hamburgers. Other major outbreaks in the 2000s include the 2006 E. coli outbreak from contaminated spinach that caused five deaths, a Salmonella outbreak in peanut butter that caused nine deaths and sickened 714 in 46 states in 2008, and the 2011 Listeria outbreak on cantaloupes that caused 33 deaths. The list goes on. Today, CDC investigates all outbreaks.

During 2016, the CDC reported 839 foodborne disease outbreaks, resulting in 14,259 illnesses, 875 hospitalizations and 17 deaths. However, the vast majority of illnesses go unreported. Why? Because most healthy people, who experience a couple of days of symptoms, do not report their illness or even, see a doctor.

Foodborne illness outbreaks remain a problem in the US. Large outbreaks have led to people to believe the problem has increased in recent years. However, a comparison of data from the CDC showed very little change in the incidence of foodborne illness between 2008 and the preceding three years (2005-2007)—which also means very little improvement. Improperly prepared or mishandled foods in restaurants and food service establishments account for the largest proportion of foodborne disease incidents.

Myth #1: Foodborne illness is caused by the last food you ate. Fact: No! Foodborne illness can be caused by food eaten a few minutes ago (Staph – 30 minutes), a few hours ago (C. perfringens 6 – 24 hours) a few days ago (E. coli 1-7 days), a few weeks ago (listeria 7 to 70 days) and even sometimes a few months ago (parasites). The length of time from ingestion to illness is the incubation period. It can vary greatly, depending on which microorganism is making you sick.

Myth #2: Symptoms like stomachache, vomiting and diarrhea are caused by “the stomach flu.” Fact: First, the term “stomach flu” is incorrect. “The flu” (influenza virus) is a respiratory disease process, while stomachaches, vomiting and diarrhea are gastrointestinal (GI) by nature. Although GI illnesses can be a foodborne illness virus (such as norovirus), it is not influenza (flu). “Stomach flu” is a word-of-mouth folklore term. It is not a medical diagnosis. Norovirus is a fecal oral foodborne illness and the leading cause of foodborne illness in the US at 43percent. Symptoms include vomiting and diarrhea. Frequent handwashing is your best defense.
Four steps to food safety

Following the four simple steps—clean, separate, cook and chill—can help keep your family safe from food poisoning at home.
Clean: Lather up and wash hands for 20 seconds or longer before preparing foods and before eating meals and snacks. Wash surfaces and utensils after each use. Wash fruits and vegetables, but not meat, poultry, eggs, bagged produce marked “pre-washed” (these are pre-washed).

Separate: Do not cross contaminate. Use separate cutting boards and plates for produce, meat, poultry, seafood and eggs. Keep raw food separate from cooked foods.

Cook to the right temperature: Food is safely cooked when the internal temperature is high enough to kill germs that can make you sick. Use a food thermometer to be sure your food is safe. When you think your food is done, place the food thermometer in the thickest part of the food, making sure not to touch bone, fat or gristle. Cook all poultry to 165°F or higher and ground meats to 160°F or higher.
Chill: Refrigerate and freeze food properly. Refrigerate perishable foods within two hours. Bacteria that cause food poisoning multiply quickest between 40°F and 140°F. Your refrigerator should be set to below 40°F (37 to 39°F best practice) and freezer to 0°F or below. Use an appliance thermometer to be sure.

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Drusilla Banks