Open your refrigerator door and take a good look inside. What do you see? If you’re looking at packages of raw chicken, beef or pork, lettuce, vegetables, or even fresh fruit, you’ll want to pay close attention to what I’m about to tell you, because these are all foods that can cause foodborne illnesses if not prepared or stored properly.
Danger Lurks Within Your Fridge
First thing’s first – what exactly IS a foodborne illness? Well, the name says it all. A foodborne illness is an infection or irritation of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract caused by food or beverages that contain harmful bacteria, parasites, viruses, or chemicals.
The most common foodborne illness symptoms include, but are not limited to:
- abdominal pain
Although some of the potentially dangerous foods lurking in your fridge are fairly obvious (I mean who doesn’t know not to eat raw meat?), there are other favorites that are likely in your kitchen that you may not even realize pose a risk to your family’s health. Cue the creepy music.
Let’s start with meat and poultry.
Let’s Talk Turkey, and Ham, and Beef
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), raw and undercooked meat and poultry are surefire ways to get sick. This should come as no surprise, as nearly all raw poultry contains bacteria, including: Campylobacter, Salmonella, E. coli, Yersinia (commonly found on raw pork), and C. perfringens (one of the most common bacteria leading to short-term food poisoning). Did I mention nearly all raw poultry could be contaminated?
Fortifying Your Kitchen
What can you do to lessen the risk of getting sick? There are several DOS and DON’TS.
DON’T – It might seem like an easy way to clean your food – just wash it, right? But this is not the way to prevent illness when it comes to preparing meat. The CDC says you should not wash raw poultry or meat before cooking it (even though some older recipes may call for this step). Not only will washing your meats not prevent illness, washing your meats may actually spread the bacteria to other foods through cross-contamination. Washing your meat will cause raw juices to splatter all over your kitchen and contaminate many different surfaces.
DO – Thoroughly cook poultry and meat to destroy germs. You can kill bacteria by cooking poultry and meat to a safe internal temperature. (FoodSafety.gov is a great resource for a list of recommended temperatures).
DO – Use a cooking thermometer to check the temperature. Don’t just guess that your food is finished cooking, make sure.
DO – Store leftovers properly. Leftovers should be refrigerated at 40°F or colder within 2 hours after preparation or one hour if the environment’s temperature is above 90°F. If you have larger cuts of meat, be sure to divide into smaller portions so they will cool quickly and bacteria won’t spread.
The Hidden Perpetrators
Next on the list – fruits and vegetables.
Does your diet include more vegetarian options – salads, vegetables, fruits? If so, you still need to be careful. Yes, it’s good to load your body up with a variety of greens and berries daily, but even these raw foods can cause food poisoning, according to the CDC. Most recently, 197 people across 35 states became sick, and 89 were hospitalized as a result of an outbreak of E. coli with Romaine lettuce. Just recently, Caito Foods, LLC recalled fresh cut watermelon, honeydew melon, cantaloupe, and fresh-cut fruit medley products containing one of these melons produced at the Caito Foods facility in Indianapolis, Indiana. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is currently investigating this outbreak of Salmonella Adelaide infections in those five Midwestern states, which has caused 60 people to fall ill.
So, how does that happen? It can all be blamed on cross-contamination. Because fruits and vegetables are transported from farms to locations across the United States, the exterior of those uncooked fruits and veggies are nothing more than a breeding ground for bacteria, such as E. coli, Salmonella, and Listeria. If you bring items into the house and place them in your fridge next to other foods, the contamination can spread and cross-contaminate everything they touch.
There are, of course, ways to prevent illness, the most basic of which is to wash any and all of these foods before consuming. You don’t need fancy, chemical-based products to do away with the germs – good old water will do the trick (though distilled water has been proven to do an even better job).
Another danger lurking inside that refrigerator are your dairy products. This includes not just milk, but eggs, too.
Listen, of course you want to get your daily dose of Vitamin D and calcium, and eggs are a great source of protein. But did you know that raw milk, as well as some cheeses (feta, brie, and camembert), ice cream, and yogurt can also carry the same bacteria listed above? Really anything made with unpasteurized milk poses a risk.
Lastly, let’s talk about a food you might be surprised to see on this list – flour.
Flour makes the list of risky foods because it is usually raw and hasn’t been treated—and because we cook with it or use it in our baking, those germs are killed during cooking. However, you’ve heard warnings about staying away from eating raw cookie dough, right? That’s not just because of the eggs, but also because food items like raw cookie dough have often been a source of food poisoning given that the flour in these staples hasn’t been cooked.
It’s scary to think that whether it’s in your refrigerator or your pantry, the dangers of foodborne illness are real.
Did you know 1 in 6 people in the United States suffer through side effects of food-borne diseases, and more than 3,000 deaths each year are caused by foodborne pathogens? You definitely don’t want to be the next statistic.
If you think you may have become sick due to something you’ve consumed, contact your health-care provider. Early medical attention can help reduce the risk of severity of illness and help you from succumbing to post-infectious complications.
By: Jerrilyn Brouse, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)