The Perspective

Last night’s dinner made me sick – or did it?

The definitive answer is: Maybe.

The CDC estimates that about 48 million Americans become sick with a foodborne illness each year, and of these cases, the cause is unspecified in 38 million. More than 3,000 die each year from food poisoning in the United States.

Health district staff has heard most foodborne illnesses myths: it’s the last thing I ate that made me sick; I’m more likely to get sick from a restaurant; ALL gastrointestinal illnesses are foodborne illnesses. The facts, however, might surprise you.

All foodborne illnesses are not the same and not every bout of diarrhea or vomiting is a foodborne illness. There are many different pathogens that can make you sick. Most people recover quickly without medical intervention. But for some there can be serious illness or severe health consequences, and even death.

Each year, the health district receives about 700 foodborne illness complaints. In 2010, these complaints generated 37 restaurant investigations.

Callers often report they got sick from food eaten at the last restaurant they visited before getting sick. Sometimes the health district gets test results from a doctor’s office or lab that confirms a patient has E.coli, Salmonellosis or other type of foodborne illness. No matter the scenario, oftentimes it’s NOT the last thing you ate that made you sick.

“Once we receive a complaint, a disease investigator asks questions to help determine if an illness might be connected to an outbreak. We have a system in place that flags a location that receives more than one complaint in a month,” said Patricia Rowley, manager of the office of epidemiology.

After eating contaminated food, there is a delay, called an incubation period - the time between exposure and when symptoms of illness begin. The delay can range from hours to days depending on the offending organisms and on how many of them you swallowed.

“A positive lab test result can confirm an illness, but not its source. Once we know what specific virus or bacteria made you sick, we can work backwards using the incubation period to try to identify the possible source,” said Rowley.

You got sick, where?

While foodborne illness outbreaks at restaurants or nationwide recalls get attention, between 60 and 70 percent of foodborne illnesses occur at home, and most home kitchens wouldn’t pass a restaurant inspection. Cross contamination is a common culprit and can occur when you forget to switch knives when preparing raw meat and produce or not properly cleaning a cutting board between tasks.

During a restaurant investigation, health district staff visits the facility to identify practices that could cause illness. While some unhealthy practices might be identified, the illness source often is not.

For example, in Southern Nevada there are approximately 100 cases of Salmonella annually. “We do see Salmonella fairly often, but since there are thousands of strains, they aren’t often connected to a single source. In many instances they might have been contracted through a meal that was prepared and eaten at home,” said Rowley.

The ultimate purpose of health district food regulations and restaurant inspections is to prevent foodborne illnesses before they occur by ensuring food safety guidelines and codes are followed. Restaurants can be downgraded or closed for multiple or egregious violations that directly impact food safety.

So, what do we do and what should you do?

“Our goal is to make sure public health is protected. We encourage everyone to use safe food handling practices in their kitchens to minimize the risk of illness for their families,” said Mark Bergtholdt, environmental health supervisor.

Home cooks should be as diligent as restaurant staff when it comes to food prep.

In the course of their duties, health district inspectors answer many questions about food safety.

“We are asked about many different practices or myths like adding vinegar to raw fish to cook it; if shrimp is pink it’s cooked properly; if you leave butter out you’ll get sick if you eat it; it’s quicker to cool down foods in the freezer.” added Bergtholdt.


For the record . . .

  • Adding vinegar will kill bacteria, but NOT other parasites sometimes found in fish; they will only be killed by cooking.
  • The temperature that makes shrimp turn pink is not the temperature that kills bacteria. Always cook food to appropriate internal temperatures to kill bacteria and other parasites.
  • Butter at room temperature won’t make you sick, but, eventually, it will go rancid and taste ‘off.’
  • Food freezes from the outside in. Once a layer of ice forms on the food, the ice acts like an insulator. The food cools more slowly than if it was placed in the fridge, which should have a temperature of 41°F or lower.

Cooking foods to their proper internal temperatures is an important factor in reducing foodborne illnesses. Guidelines are available on the FDA website, and buying a food thermometer is a good idea.

Bottom line – safe food handling techniques are important. Avoid cross contamination by keeping raw meat and vegetables separate, store meat on the bottom shelf of the fridge, use clean knives and cutting boards, and wash your hands frequently when preparing food.

And last but not least, an answer to one of the most asked questions . . . .

“Why can’t I order a hamburger cooked rare?”

You can . . . after the restaurant has advised you that eating under-cooked meat can be hazardous to your health. If you haven’t been warned… you can’t have a rare burger.

Food regulations require stricter temperatures for burgers because ground beef can contain more pathogens. By grinding beef together, any contamination from the meat’s exterior could be mixed throughout. A rare burger’s internal temperature is not hot enough to kill all the pathogens mixed into the meat.

For more information, go to the food safety section of the health district’s website. To subscribe to "The Perspective," complete our online form.

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