Only a little more than 100 years ago, it was difficult to keep our food supply safe, healthy, and pure, mostly due to lack of adequate preservation methods and cold storage. Commercial canning did not come into its own until around the turn of the twentieth century, as did the use of iceboxes in private homes. (Refrigerators didn’t become common until the 1930s to 1940s.) But throughout almost all of history, the human race suffered mightily—and died—from a variety of foodborne ailments.
These days, the vast majority of food poisoning cases do not arise from home canning or from poor handling or storage of food at home, though such cases are not unheard of. Rather, poisoning cases often come from a lack of sanitation in restaurants and in the processes used to bring our food supply from fields (or slaughterhouses) to market and, ultimately, to our mouths.
You’d think, with all our modern processes, refrigeration, cleaning procedures, and knowledge about disease prevention, that food poisoning would be a thing of the past. It most definitely is not.
The Many Forms of Food Poisoning
Food poisoning is a blanket term for many different illnesses that can result from eating spoiled or tainted food and beverages. A recent outbreak in a South Carolina day care center that killed one toddler and sickened many others may have focused your attention on the STEC form of E. coli, which is only one of several common foodborne illnesses. In this case, it is believed that the food was tainted with fecal matter that was transferred to the food in the center itself.
The outbreak Summer 2015, though, may be the Cyclospora contamination of fresh cilantro, which has sickened almost 500 people in the U.S. and Canada combined. Like STEC, Cyclospora infection results from the tainting of foodstuffs with fecal matter carrying the contaminant.
Other foodborne illness-causing agents include:
- Salmonella (90 sickened in July 2015 in Washington State)
- Campylobacter (when found, it’s often in undercooked chicken and raw milk)
- Norwalk virus, or Norovirus (famously of cruise ships and resorts; notoriously difficult to eradicate)
- Clostridium botulinum (Botulism; April, 2015, church potluck in Ohio, 29 sickened, 1 dead)
- Staphylococcus aureus (outbreak in a Montgomery, AL, child care center, where 86 were sickened)
- Listeria (Blue Bell ice cream, 10 sickened, three dead)
- Hepatitis A (usually spread by food preparation employees with the disease)
Symptoms of these illnesses vary, but often include fever, watery or bloody diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, and neurological symptoms such as muscle weakness or blurry vision.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that each year roughly one in six U.S. citizens, or about 48 million, come down with some form of food poisoning. About 128,000 of those cases are serious enough to require hospitalization, and 3,000 of those victims die.
When Complications Arise
While most people with food poisoning improve within a few days, some will develop deadly complications that can cause death or serious harm. These unfortunate people are most likely to be the very young, the elderly, or people with medical conditions that make it harder for them to fight off infections (such as those with AIDS or lupus, or those who are immunocompromised from chemotherapy treatments). However, healthy adults exposed to a very high level of bacteria or other poison can also fall gravely ill. Serious and deadly complications from food poisoning include:
- Severe dehydration from vomiting and diarrhea, which can lead to death if the victim is not hospitalized
- Reiter’s syndrome, also known as reactive arthritis, a complication from Salmonella, Shigella, or Campylobacter poisoning that causes chronic joint pain, eye irritation and painful urination
- Hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a complication of certain coli strains whose victims develop temporary anemia, profuse bleeding and permanent kidney failure. It is sometimes deadly.
- Botulism, which paralyzes the muscles, causing blurred or double vision, slurred speech, trouble swallowing, weakness, paralysis of the arms and legs and, eventually, death
- Complications from Listeria monocytogenes, most severe in the unborn or very young, who may experience long-term neurological damage.
How is Food Poisoning Spread?
Food poisoning may be spread by insufficient washing of fruit and vegetables; contaminated hands (often this means not washing one’s hands after using bathroom facilities); contaminated food preparation equipment; improper handling of food; or vermin infestations.
In other words, food poisoning is almost always preventable, although consumers often do not see the conditions that cause their food to become contaminated. Restaurants, grocery stores, farmers and food manufacturers all have a legal duty to make sure their products are safe to eat. When they fail in that duty, innocent people are sickened. And a few — often children whose parents gave them fresh produce with the best of intentions — will die.
While food poisoning is not always preventable, a number of cases of illness can be eliminated by practicing safe food handling and hygiene. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration have the following four basic suggestions for handling your food at home:
- Clean: Wash food preparation surfaces with hot, soapy water, and wash your hands often. Wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly under running water, rubbing the skin. Wash the tops of cans and jars before you open them.
- Separate: Don’t cross-contaminate foods. Especially keep raw meats, eggs, and fish apart from other foods. Don’t reuse marinade in which raw foods were soaked unless you boil it vigorously first. Don’t use the same knives and boards when cutting meats and vegetables unless you disinfect them first, and don’t place cooked food on plates that held raw food.
- Cook: Cook everything to the proper temperatures. Use a cooking thermometer to be certain of a food’s internal temperature. When reheating liquid foods such as soups or gravies, bring them to a boil.
- Chill: Refrigerate all cooked food promptly. Do not leave foods out to cool off, but rather divide up large dishes into smaller containers and chill them promptly. Never thaw food at room temperature. Always refrigerate food while it is marinating. Use your leftovers within a few days, and when in doubt, throw it out!
Remember, you cannot always see, smell, or taste harmful or deadly bacteria. Follow the suggestions above to keep from bringing food poisoning into your home, and keep abreast of the latest recalls of contaminated foods.
Seeking truth. Securing justice.
If you or someone you care about has been seriously injured or killed by someone else’s careless handling of food, you have the right to hold the negligent party responsible in court. With almost eight decades of combined legal expertise, the Louthian Law Firm can help you evaluate your case and file the best possible lawsuit. To preserve your right to a day in court, don’t delay — South Carolina law can be complex, and the deadline for filing a claim can quickly pass. Contact one of our experienced South Carolina product injury attorneys as soon as possible, toll free at (803) 454-1200, for a free case evaluation. If you prefer, use our online contact form. Louthian Law Firm. On the case. Around the clock.