January 2009
Featured Articles

Myths About Foodborne Disease

The Truth About Food Poisoning and Foodborne Disease;
Correcting Some Common Misperceptions

Americans often take "food poisoning" for granted. However, a growing barrage of medical evidence documenting serious problems arising from contamination in our food, combined with the increasing complexity of our food supply system, reveal nonchalance towards "food poisoning" is outdated and dangerous. Here are some myths about foodborne illnesses explaining why it is in our families’ best interest to clean up our food.

Myth: Foodborne illness is caused by food that has spoiled or "gone bad."

Fact: While spoiled food can make a person sick, most foodborne illnesses are caused by bacterial or viral organisms contaminating the food, not the food itself. Most foodborne contamination that makes people sick does not affect the appearance, taste, smell or texture of the food.

Myth: All foodborne illnesses are the same.

Fact: Thousands of different bacteria and viruses cause foodborne illness and health consequences can vary from mild flu-like symptoms to death depending on the organism, the amount ingested and the unique immune response characteristics of the person exposed. Anyone experiencing abdominal pains, blood in urine or bowel movements, or even milder symptoms lasting more than a couple of days should seek immediate attention.

Myth: Foodborne illness is unusual.

Fact: Since people may only hear of two or three outbreaks a year, many assume foodborne disease is only a sporadic problem. In reality, the Centers for Disease Control estimate one out of every three Americans becomes sick from contaminated food each year, 325,000 Americans are hospitalized and 5,000 die annually because of the severity of their symptoms. Most foodborne illnesses are isolated cases, not outbreaks. Often, what people assume is the stomach flu is actually a case of disease caused by contaminated food.

 Myth: Foodborne illness is a fleeting inconvenience.

Fact: Foodborne illnesses are increasingly being linked to long-term injury and health conditions. For example, reactive arthritis is known to be caused predominantly by foodborne diseases like Salmonellosis, while another common bacteria, Campylobacter, is implicated in up to 40 percent of all cases of Guillain-Barre syndrome, characterized by sudden-onset acute paralysis. E. coli 0157:H7 is the leading cause of acute kidney failure in American children and can also lead to diabetes, high blood pressure, blindness and death.

Myth: Foodborne illness can always be traced to the last thing you ate.

Fact: Foodborne illness can be caused by contamination in food eaten a few hours ago, a few days ago or even a few weeks ago.

Myth: Safe cooking can prevent all foodborne disease.

Fact: Americans can reduce their family’s risk of getting sick by understanding and practicing safe food handling. These include proper refrigeration, cooking to an adequate internal temperature and guarding against cross-contamination. However, there are many, many instances of foodborne illness where consumer behavior does not play a role. The only sure way to prevent foodborne disease is for food producers to keep disease contamination out of their products in the first place.

 Myth: Foodborne illness is no big deal for healthy people.

Fact: Certain populations, like children, elders, pregnant women and the immune-compromised, have a higher statistical risk of illness and dire consequences, but no one is immune from the ravages of foodborne disease.

 Myth: Foodborne illness is inevitable.

Fact: Most foodborne diseases could be prevented by greater industry and regulatory commitment to producing a safe food supply. Every time a case of foodborne illness occurs, it spotlights a gap in the food safety network that has allowed the introduction of potentially deadly pathogens into food. Food producers can and should do more to prevent contamination from happening in the first place, and the government and American families have the right to demand they do.

Angela Treadaway is a Regional Extension Agent in Food Safety. For more questions on this or on Food Safety or y our our Preparation of different vegetables contact Angela at 205-410-3696 or your local County Extension office.