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What nobody wants to tell you about food safety

Lately it seems that news about food-borne illness has been flooding the Internet.

Case in point: fast-food restaurant Chipotle’s struggles after hundreds of customers in different locations became ill due to E. coli and norovirus.

The Centers for Disease Control’s most recent report — from 2013 — on foodborne disease lists the number of outbreaks and illnesses due to bacteria, viruses, parasites, chemicals and toxins. The report shows one thing that we don’t usually hear on the nightly news: how often we make ourselves sick from foodborne illness in our own homes.

While we may have written off a bout of diarrhea or vomiting as a stomach bug, the situation could also be much more severe and mean time missed from work or even hospitalization.  Those with vulnerable immune systems, including infants, children, the immunocompromised or the elderly, could experience life-threatening complications or even death as a result of foodborne illness.

The top three culprits of food borne illness that you are likely to get in your own home are salmonella, norovirus and E. coli.


Salmonella is a bacteria. How do you know you have it? Most people infected with salmonella develop diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps 12 to 72 hours after infection. The illness usually lasts four – seven days, and most recover without treatment. However, in some cases, the diarrhea may be so severe that the patient needs to be hospitalized.

Salmonella can be caused by eating raw or undercooked eggs, poultry or meat, or not washing produce before consumption. Other culprits include drinking raw milk; drinking water than has not been tested or treated; not washing hands after handling such reptiles as lizards, turtles and snakes; not washing hands after handling live chickens or ducks; or coming in contact with animal feces.

E. Coli

E. coli is a bacteria that lives normally in the intestinal tract of humans and animals, but once outside the intestinal tract it can cause disease and illness. One in particular that is responsible for serious illness is the E. coli that make a toxin called shiga toxin.

How do you know you have it? The symptoms of shiga toxin-producing E. Coli infections vary for each person but often include severe stomach cramps, diarrhea (often bloody) and vomiting. If there is fever, it usually is not very high. Most people get better within five – seven days. Some infections are very mild, but others are severe or even life threatening.

E.Coli infections are caused by coming in contact with E. coli bacteria from the intestinal tract of animals or humans.


Norovirus is a very contagious virus. How do you know you have it? Norovirus causes inflammation of the stomach and intestines that result in gastroenteritis, causing vomiting and diarrhea. It can result in illness, hospitalization or even death.

The norovirus can be found in minute particles of feces or vomit and transmitted by sharing food, drinking from common glasses, or through contact with cooking surfaces or utensils contaminated by someone who has norovirus.

The bottom line

How can you prevent foodborne illness?

  • Wash your hands thoroughly after using the bathroom or changing diapers and before preparing or eating food. Wash after contact with animals or their environments.
  • Cook meats thoroughly. Ground beef and meat that has been needle-tenderized should be cooked to a temperature of at least 160 degrees. It’s best to use a thermometer, as color is not a very reliable indicator of doneness.
  • Avoid raw milk, unpasteurized dairy products and unpasteurized or raw juices.
  • Avoid swallowing water when swimming or playing in lakes, ponds, streams, and swimming pools.
  • Prevent cross contamination in food preparation areas by thoroughly washing hands, counters, cutting boards, and utensils after they touch raw meat.
  • Take a break if you are sick. Avoid preparing food for your family or co-workers so you don’t transfer your illness to them! Don’t share glasses, plates, or utensils when you’re sick.

Talk to Leah

Leah McGrath is the corporate dietitian for Ingles Markets. Follow her @InglesDietitian. Contact her at, 800-334-4936 or at