NERD ALERT! This article is not the sexiest topic, but it can add years to your life expectancy, so pay attention!
All potentially hazardous foods come with a 4-hour time bomb built in. Anytime food is in the temperature danger zone (TDZ) the bomb starts ticking. The TDZ is a range of temperatures where bacteria can grow best. The range is 41°-135°, however, the most dangerous part of the range is 70-125. This is like a warm bath for bacteria. They love it! The easiest way to stop the time bomb clock from ticking, is to stop it every two hours, meaning, get it back into the fridge until it gets back down to 40°. Now on to the big 5 bacteria.
#1: Campylobacter jejuni The most common bacteria are known as Campylobacter jejuni. This is the number 1 bacteria foodborne illness in the United States, the number one cause of bacterial diarrhea, and the number one cause of illness is college-aged students. Why college students? Because they are often eating in cafeterias and likely using a microwave to heat up food and less likely to keep it clean. Campylobacter jejuni was previously thought to be inert, but changes in American’s diet increased the chances of getting it. In the mid-80s Americans started to eat more chicken and 88% of all chicken is infected. Symptoms include fever, diarrhea, cramping, abdominal pain and can last as long as a week. How do you pick up these bacteria? By consuming undercooked chicken and through cross-contamination. You should get into the practice of using one cutting board for meats and poultry and one for fruits and vegetables, this way, it is less like you’ll cross-contaminate your veggies. There is typically a time-delay of 2-5 days after ingesting and few associate the cause with the symptoms. It can present as appendicitis. However, cooking it to the proper temperature, 165°, will kill the bacteria.
#2: Salmonella There are 28 different strains of Salmonella and there are around 1.4 million cases per year, however, only 1 in every 30 cases get reported. Sources include, shellfish from polluted water, ice cream, ready to eat food, chocolate, eggs, and reptiles. Yes, your pet lizard could be a carrier of salmonella. And, 38% of all chickens are infected. Friend, hear me now. If you take nothing else away from this post, take this. There is no such thing as medium rare chicken, despite what that idiot said on Facebook so don’t freaking do it! Symptoms include fever (6-48 hours after ingestion), some vomiting, headache, cramping, can present with rose colored spots on torso. The best defense from Salmonella is to avoid cross-contamination, thoroughly cook suspected food (poultry), and eat yogurt with active culture.
#3: Clostridium perfringens Clostridium perfringens, aka “The Cafeteria Germ”, got its nickname due to the fact that outbreaks are usually large and occur with food made in big quantities and “held” meaning kept at a certain temperature. The is an anaerobic bacteria, or bacteria that do not live or grow when oxygen is present. They are able to withstand high cooking temperatures and are commonly found in root vegetables. This cafeteria germ can cause abdominal cramps, diarrhea, and nausea and symptoms usually appear 8-22 hours after ingesting. As an interesting side note, this is also the same organism that causes gangrene. Clostridium perfringens is typically associated with schools, prisons, and buffets. So, how can you avoid it? Thoroughly cook food to safe temperatures, keep food hot after cooking and serve meat dishes hot, within 2 hours after cooking. Microwave leftovers to 165°.
#4: Staphylococcus When we think of foodborne illnesses, Staphylococcus causes an intoxication, in other body parts, it’s considered an infection. The primary source is in the throat and nasal passages. However, infected cuts, burns, pimples and boils can spread it too. When in food, it produces an odorless, tasteless toxin that is heat stable, which means normal cooking temperatures will not destroy it. The longer the contaminated food is in the temperature danger zone, the more toxic it becomes. 35% of all outbreaks involve cured meat – ham, corned beef, pastrami. Guesses why? Right! These foods are most likely to be mishandled because many assume they are “safe” and nonperishable. Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and cramps can occur 1-6 hours after ingesting. Prevention? Don’t touch your face while cooking. If you have a cut on your finger you can wear gloves or those little finger condoms. Also, store food at proper temperatures.
#5: E. coli 0157:H7 And finally, number 5 is my personal favorite. It always aggravates the crap out of me when I go to a restaurant and order a hamburger and the waiter or waitress asks me how I’d like it cooked. My answer is always the same, 155° please. They usually look at me, like wut? But seriously! If you are eating undercooked ground beef, you are definitely living on the edge. Yeah, yeah, you’ve done it for a million years and never gotten sick. Well you little risk taker you, all it takes is one time and you’ll be changing your tune. 3% of all cattle are infected with E. coli 0157:H7. Before we get into all that, let’s back up a bit.
First, everyone has some E. coli in their bodies, without it, we wouldn’t be able to digest solid foods. And in case you’re curious, this is why babies put everything in their mouths. It’s how we introduce bacteria to our guts. However, as you’ve likely guessed, there are different strains of E. coli and the bad one is 0157:H7. This is the bacteria responsible for the Jack-in-the-Box incident in 1993, bean sprouts in 1996 (which is why bean sprouts totally freak me out), and 25 million pounds of beef recalled in 1997. Now, you may be thinking, that was a long time ago. But do any of you remember the great romaine lettuce recall of 2019? Yes, the primary source of E. coli 0157:H7 is beef. But, another source is produce that has not been properly washed. Also, contaminated water can be a source. And when produce is grown in contaminated water, no amount of washing will make it go away. This is another reason you should not drink water from rivers and streams without first boiling it. Other sources include unpasteurized or raw milk and juice, soft cheese made from raw milk, and feces of infected people.
So, how do you know if you’ve been poisoned by E. coli 0157:H7? The incubation period is 1-10 days and the main symptom is Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome or HUS. This is a bloody diarrhea that dissolves the cell walls and any other organ it attaches to. This can lead to death in young children. In older patients, it can lead to strokes. Usually little to no fever is present. To prevent an outbreak, make sure you wash your hands before, during, and after preparing food, after diapering infants, and avoid eating high-risk foods like undercooked ground beef and raw milk and soft cheeses made with raw milk. Back to my story about hamburgers. Ground beef should always be cooked to 155° or higher, some sources suggest 160. You may be thinking, but why is it ok to eat a rare or medium rare steak? It’s because the bacteria lives on the outside of the steak and when it’s cooked, the bacteria is killed. But, with ground beef, the E. coli is all mixed in with it, which is why it needs to be cooked to an internal temp of 155.
We’ve now covered the Big Five bacteria related to foodborne illnesses and you’re probably wondering how you are ever supposed to remember it all. Good news! I’ve put together a document for you that you can print out and keep handy in your kitchen. But wait! There’s more! I also made you a temperature danger zone chart so you will never forget!
If you have any questions, I’d love to see them!