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The listeria hysteria;Take steps to protect yourself from food poisoning

Recent headline stories have identified a serious food poisoning outbreak in North America, resulting from people eating organisms or toxins in contaminated food.

Recent headline stories have identified a serious food poisoning outbreak in North America, resulting from people eating organisms or toxins in contaminated food.

Although our food supply is usually considered the safest in the world, people still get food poisoning. Fortunately, serious outbreaks are rare. However, when they do happen, the very young and old, and those with a serious medical condition, like kidney disease or diabetes, or immune system weaknesses are affected the most. If you have any of those conditions, you should be extra cautious.

If you are in good health, why not exercise caution, even though your own immune system could likely fight most contaminates?

Raw foods, for example, often carry harmful bacteria. Raw meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, as well as spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, sprouts and melon frequently become contaminated while being grown, harvested, processed, stored, shipped or prepared for sale. Nevertheless, don’t avoid them, since they carry valuable nutrients -just handle them properly. Usually, thorough washing and/or cooking is good enough.

If you’re cooking your food, cook it thoroughly then eat it right away.

Leaving it on the counter at room temperature for over two hours could potentially lead to a case of food poisoning because this is an ideal environment for bacteria to flourish. Unfortunately, this bacteria growth often goes unnoticed because foods do not immediately begin to smell, look or feel rotten.

To slow down bacteria growth, refrigerate foods. To kill bacteria, thoroughly cook foods. If you’ve got raw meat, poultry, or fish that’s been in the fridge for longer than one or two days, throw it out. Freeze anything that needs to be stored longer. Freezing slows or stops the bacteria’s growth. But when the food thaws, the microbes will start multiplying again, so don’t store thawed foods long. For best results, keep the refrigerator set at 40 F and your freezer at or below 0 F.

Be cautious at picnics, school cafeterias, and large social functions because in these situations food is often left at room temperature too long and is not prepared using proper food-handling techniques.

Common foods available in these settings are also at fault, such as: undercooked meats; dairy products; or food containing mayonnaise such as coleslaw or potato salad, which has become warm. Avoid them.

Both at home and on the road, foods can become contaminated. When at home, take these precautionary steps to protect yourself:

Begin by thoroughly washing your hands before touching any foods. Next, use only clean utensils, dishes and work surfaces. Include a meat thermometer as one of your regular cooking tools and then use it. When inserted into the core of your cooked meat, the thermometer should read at least 160 F for beef, 180 F for poultry, and 140 F for fish. Later, put your cooked meat on a fresh plate, not the one that the uncooked meat or fish was on.

Examine what you’re planning to cook. Check the expiry dates on packages, throw out expired foods.

Check packages to ensure the seal is intact -a broken seal means the food is no longer sterile. Avoid cans that are dented or bulging, this may indicate a build-up of gasses from bacteria growth. Trust your eyes and nose. If a food looks or smells unusual, don’t eat it!

On the road, eat in clean, reputable establishments. If you’ve eaten safely at a truck stop for years, keep going to it. Remember where drivers complain about feeling sick at after eating there. In a restaurant, choose well-cooked meat dishes.

When brown-bagging it, wash your raw fruit and vegetables and keep them in a small fridge or cooler. Even pre-packaged foods can be hazardous; if possible, microwave them to kill any hidden bacteria.

Unfortunately, even if you’re cautious, about two to six hours after eating contaminated food, you may feel the following symptoms of food poisoning: nausea and vomiting; abdominal cramps; diarrhea; fever; weakness; headache; dehydration. Don’t panic. Usually, you’ll get over it on your own by drinking extra fluids (not milk or caffeinated drinks).

However, you should call your doctor if: you have diarrhea, but cannot drink fluids due to nausea or vomiting; you are on diuretics and have diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting; your diarrhea lasts for more than two or three days; you have blood in your stools; or you have a fever over 101 F.

You could be very sick and should call 9-1-1 if: you have signs of dehydration, such as feeling thirsty, dizzy, light-headed, or faint; you have excessive bleeding or your stools are maroon or black; you have trouble breathing; your heart is racing, pounding, or skipping; you have trouble swallowing; or you have symptoms related to your nervous system – symptoms, like: weakness, double vision, difficulty speaking, or paralysis.

Usually food poisoning is just an unpleasant inconvenience. However, if you feel you need medical treatment, don’t take a chance, go with your gut.

-Karen Bowen is a professional health and nutrition consultant and she can be reached by e-mail at

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