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Learning The Mistakes I Made

Posted in Food Safety on September 17, 2018

Writing about outbreaks and food safety, I often reflect back on my bad experiences.  One in particular happened a few years ago – “Pre-  Even then I knew that I probably handled the situation badly.  With all I know now, I’d know exactly what I’m supposed to do.

One of the many hats I wear (along with Molecular Biologist at the day job and at the time, Tupperware consultant) is kombucha brewer.  We sell our kombucha at local farmers markets every Saturday and Sunday.  What this means, is that Saturday mornings come very early for us.  Like, 4 AM early.  Morning chores still have to be done and markets begin at 9 AM.

That morning I started feeling light headed and nauseated.  I just thought that maybe I didn’t get enough sleep the night before.  This isn’t something out of the ordinary, but if usually passes once I get up and going.  The feeling just didn’t go away.  It was a rainy morning, so that didn’t help much either.  We managed to get out the door and I was feeling worse and worse as we headed to the kitchen.  So bad, I had to relieve my nausea in the car in a bag that I happen to have in the front seat.

Not feeling well and not really sure why I was feeling sick, my husband took care of everything that morning.  He loaded all of the kombucha in our dispensers and loaded up the car while I sat, kind of useless, by the door waiting.  At this point it was a point of no return.  I just decided that I would go along for the ride but I wouldn’t handle anything and just wait in the car until the market was over.  Turns out, waiting in the car wasn’t really an option.  I spent the entire market in the bathroom located on the premises.  The other part of a common foodborne illness symptom began.  Thankfully, it waited until we arrived in the parking lot.

Since I was sitting alone for a while, dealing with my “situation,” I had a little time to think about it.  Why am I so sick?!  Was I around anyone who was sick?  My husband didn’t seem to have any symptoms.  And then there were the pleas, “Make it stop!”  Then it hit me…

A Likely Origin

Just 2 days before we were at another Farmers Market (Thursday evenings).  This was in the Summer when it was so hot outside and a heat advisory was called from 3 PM to 7 PM.  That just happens to be the time of the market.  After finishing up, we drove down the street for dinner.  Sometimes, I didn’t have time to pack dinner, so we would eat out on that side of town before returning to the commercial kitchen.  That night, I made a bad mistake.

I usually opt for cold foods, like sandwiches or salads, after a hot market.  The mister really wanted Chinese food, and there was a buffet down the street.  I had been there a long time before and remembered it was pretty good.

Strike #1: Buffet

When we got there, I saw they had sushi.  While I LOVE sushi, I don’t usually get it from a Chinese buffet.  When I have it, it is usually where I can see the chefs preparing the next roll right behind the counter and turn-around is so quick, the offerings don’t sit on the cold plate all that long.  This one wasn’t quite set up that way, but I was really craving something cold.  So, I made my dinner from the sushi and cold boiled shrimp.  It was cool, and tasty.  But a risk.

Strike #2: Questionable Sushi

We went to the kitchen to drop off supplies went home.  Proceeded with life.  That was until I got slapped in the face with whatever infected me.

What I Did Wrong

I took the classes, and knew I shouldn’t handle food when nauseous, so I handled that aspect properly.  Even though I avoided the food product and washed my hands thoroughly, I should have stay home instead of trying to make it to the market.  Fortunately, the rain seemed to scare away the customers at an already very slow market, so my husband was not very busy that day.

Strike #3: Should Have Stayed Home

It took me almost 4 days to get back to normal.  I couldn’t hold down solid foods so I was getting plenty of fluids, drinking water, juice, and broth.  I felt absolutely terrible!  Still, my husband was not sick.  He is not a fan of sushi, but he did eat the shrimp.  I eventually got better on my own, so I didn’t seek medical care.  While I eventually felt better, someone else may not have been so lucky.  Even though I could manage my illness, I should have gone to the doctor so that I could have a sample taken and diagnosed.  Working at the Health Department (though in a completely different lab than the clinical lab) I knew that samples were uploaded into a system that identifies links between sick people.  But I didn’t.

Strick #4: I Didn’t Get Tested

What I Know Now

After writing a significant number of outbreak posts and researching how the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and local health departments pass this information along to epidemiologists, I realize that I really should have reported my illness.

Epidemiologists know that the majority of healthy individuals do not report foodborne illness.  A method that is used to better estimate illness data is by using a correction ratio to estimate actual data.  While that information is important to get a sense of what is going on in public health, it is not the best snapshot.  Having specific genetic information acquired from getting your sample taken and submitted to the lab helps identify trends.  If others who are sick with the same food do the same, it will raise a red flag for an investigation to track down the source to help prevent others from falling ill.

Was my illness one bad piece of sushi?  Was the person preparing the sushi sick and everyone who ate food he prepared fell ill as well?  I will never know.  Thankfully, I haven’t had another issue with foodborne illness.  I will call myself lucky and learn from my newfound knowledge.  Next time, I will be more proactive to protect those who it might affect more seriously than me.

By: Heather Van Tassell, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)