We all are vulnerable to a number of food-borne illnesses. It is important to understand the risks of the outbreaks of food-borne diseases. We cannot wipe out such illnesses entirely but we can reduce them by using adequate control procedures.

Q. How are they caused?

A. Food-borne diseases may be the result of ingesting toxins produced by microbes that have grown on food (which is not handled or stored properly) prior to its consumption. Food-serving that carries an infectious pathogen into the body where it is able to gain a foothold can also be the culprit. The pathogen grows and produces various food-borne diseases.

Food may be contaminated during handling and preparation, often by infected food-handlers or by coming into contact with polluted water. There is a potential for fruits, vegetables and salad items being contaminated with water and sewage sludge during irrigation. Outbreaks arising from food contamination by infected food-handlers are common occurrences. Cold eatables such as salads and sandwiches which require much handling during preparation are implicated most frequently. Without meticulous attention to personal hygiene and thorough and frequent hand washing, faecally contaminated fingers can contaminate food and work surfaces.

Q. What are the symptoms?

A. Food-borne illnesses often show up with nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea or fever. Symptoms may begin as soon as one or two hours after eating. It is not uncommon for the symptoms to occur 24 hours or longer after eating. The symptoms may be severe such as high fever, bloody diarrhoea, excessive nausea and vomiting. Some have a severe illness that may require hospitalisation “” especially infants, the elderly or the immunocompromised.

Q. What are the factors which make you vulnerable?

A. Eating raw, undercooked or unpasteurised foods (meat, dairy products, sauces) make you vulnerable. Even safely cooked foods can become cross-contaminated with bacteria transferred from one food to another during handling. Salmonella is one of the most prevalent types of food-borne illnesses. One of the common sources of infection happens to be in the kitchen “” both commercial and domestic. Unless the highest standards of sanitation are applied by knowledgeable individuals during the preparation of food for human consumption, faecal material can contaminate the food. Such contamination can easily be spread to other foods via kitchen utensils, cutting boards, by contaminated hands or contact with contaminated work surfaces. These are hardy organisms which are able to survive for days or months in water or moist surfaces. Therefore, cursory measures will not protect you from dangerous organisms. A fatal type of food-poisoning may result from consuming products that have been subjected to improper home-canning methods. Bacteria that survive the canning process may grow and produce toxins. The symptoms include blurred vision, muscle weakness and headache.

Q. How to prevent such occurrences?

A. Prevention is difficult because of the nature of humankind. Elimination requires rigorous application of the basic rules of hygiene and sanitation that everyone learns in school but frequently fails to apply in everyday life. The best way to protect oneself is never to eat foods (meat, eggs, unpasteurised dairy products), raw or undercooked.

Wash your hands before preparing food after playing in the dirt, after coming into contact with animal faeces (dogs, cats) or after pooping. Do not eat dirty or spoiled foods, rotten fruits or vegetables. Do not eat off dirty dishes or utensils. Do not eat uncovered food. Keep your hands away from your nose, eye and mouth while handling or preparing food.

Q. What about kitchen habits?

A. Develop and practise good kitchen habits. Always assume that fresh food is contaminated. Wash all produce thoroughly removing all dirt. running water can remove many bacteria from fresh fruits and vegetables. Rinse for at least 30 seconds. Discard the outer leaves of the greens, and wash each leaf you use. Never leave food out of the refrigerator for more than two hours. Put away leftovers immediately after meals in small portions in the refrigerator. Use refrigerated meat within a day or two. Wash counters, sinks, refrigerator door handles, and the bottom shelf of the refrigerator regularly with a disinfectant.

Thoroughly reheat the leftovers before re-serving to destroy any bacteria.

Do not use or drink unchlorinated or any water not treated to remove bacteria. Use paper towels instead of sponges or cloth towels to clean up spills. Bacteria rapidly multiply in raw meat juice. Do not use the same plate for both raw meat and cooked meat unless you wash the plate carefully after removing the raw meat. Wash your hands well between working with meat and vegetables.

Q. What to do when one develops food poisoning?

A. Take a sample of suspected food. This will help in tracking the illness especially after attending a large congregation or eating a commercially prepared product.

Rush the individual to the hospital when the symptoms are very severe, or the individual is a high-risk person “” very young or very old, diabetic, immunocompromised, or a pregnant woman. Watch for and treat early signs of dehydration. Drink plenty of clear liquids (water, weak tea or diluted juice) for 12 to 24 hours. Do not eat solid foods while vomiting persists. Replace the lost electrolytes. You can make your own electrolyte solution using salt and sugar to taste dissolved in water. When you feel better, begin eating clear soups and mild foods (dry toast, cooked rice, cereals, bananas). Avoid spicy foods, alcohol, coffee and dairy products until all symptoms are gone.

Conclusions: The key element in reducing the spread of food-borne diseases is continued surveillance and awareness. Meticulous attention to good food-handling practices and education is essential. Food-handlers need to be frequently checked and they should pay strict attention to good hygienic practice in the kitchen and serving areas. Salad items, fruits and raw vegetables should be washed thoroughly. Public health authorities need to educate the people on how to reduce the risk of food-borne illnesses and take greater responsibility for enforcing rigorous codes of practice for the preparation of safe food not only by permanent food serving establishments but also by street-vended food. Food safety has become a global issue.