A rogue’s gallery of viruses, pathogens and toxins
associated with foodborne illness can derail the good cheer of the holiday
season. This is the reason why a food safety expert urges consumers not only to
familiarize themselves with them but also to take safeguards to protect
themselves and their families.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
estimates that roughly 1 in 6 Americans &endash; 48 million people &endash; are sickened each
year from foodborne illness.
"Ironically, foodborne illness remains a largely silent
epidemic, one suffered silently in the privacy of millions of American homes
year in and year out," says Dr. Jean Weese, an Extension food safety
specialist and Auburn University professor of poultry science who heads the
Alabama Cooperative Extension System’s food safety team.
"While it’s true that foodborne illnesses associated with
these germs are no more common during the holidays than at other times of year,
the fact remains that a lot more food is prepared and consumed this time of
year," says Weese. For this reason, she says, the holidays are a good time of
year to focus on these risks.
Following is a list of the more common bugs associated with
foodborne illness, along with their symptoms and common sources of human
Most often spread by exposure from raw or undercooked turkey
and other poultry, Campylobacter jejuni
is now the leading cause of bacterial food poisoning. Because of its
close association with poultry, it is of concern during the holiday
season. Other sources include beef, pork, shellfish and unpasteurized
Symptoms &endash; diarrhea, stomach pain, fever, nausea and
sometimes blood in the stool &endash; may follow between 1 and 10 days after consuming
infected food. These typically last between 2 and 5 days, but seldom more
than 10 days, though relapses can occur.
While the pathogen is most often associated with undercooked
beef, E.coli O157:H7 can occur on almost
any food that has been inadequately cooked or, in the case of raw vegetables
and other uncooked foods, inadequately washed.
Symptoms occur within 2 to 8 days after exposure and include
mild diarrhea to diarrhea with copious amounts of blood. Severe anemia
and kidney failure are the complications most often associated with E.coli
One thing that distinguishes Listeria from better-known
disease-causing agents, such as E.coli and Salmonella, is that it can be found practically
everywhere &endash; in the air, on the ground, in water, in soil and even on
people. Among foods, it is most commonly found in unpasteurized milk,
soft-ripened cheeses and ready-to-eat meats, such as hot dogs. Other
sources of Listeria include raw and cold-smoked fish, raw meats and poultry,
cooked poultry, fresh vegetables and ice cream.
Flu-like symptoms, such as fever, muscle aches,
nausea, diarrhea or a stiff neck, are common symptoms associated with
listeriosis. Symptoms may appear at any point between 3 and 70 days after
Noroviruses, derived from Norwalk, Ohio, where an outbreak associated
with these viruses occurred in the late 1960s, have caused misery throughout
the world. They are most often associated with mollusks or any seafood
contaminated with sewage or sewage-tainted water.
They can also be spread by the unwashed hands of infected people.
Common symptoms, which occur within a day or two after
consuming tainted food, include diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, stomach pain,
headache and mild fever. The symptoms can last for as long as 60 hours,
though they typically are not accompanied by long-term complications.
Norwalk and Norwalk-like viruses account for roughly
two-thirds of food poisoning outbreaks.
Salmonella, like Campylobacter, is another major concern
during the holiday season because it is closely associated with undercooked
poultry. Eggs are another major source of Salmonella. Other sources may
include raw meat, dairy products, pasta, shrimp, sauces and salad
Outbreaks also have been associated with close contact with
pets such as turtles, terrapins, hedgehogs, dogs and cats.
Symptoms, which include diarrhea and abdominal cramping,
typically occur within 6 to 48 hours after exposure and may be accompanied by
fever, headaches, nausea and vomiting. Complications may include blood
poisoning, meningitis and bone-joint infections.
This ball-shaped bacteria, which often can be prevented
merely by hand washing and other simple precautions, is responsible for an
estimated 1.5 million outbreaks of foodborne illness every year in the United
States. These bacteria manufacture a heat-resistant toxin that is even
able to survive boiling. Exposure most often occurs when infected nasal
secretions or untreated wounds on hands come into contact with
Vomiting can start as quickly as 1 to 6 hours after
exposure. Symptoms may be intense, often resulting in hospitalization,
though death is rare.
Staphylococcus presents a special risk during the holiday
season, largely because of the large amount of finger food consumed this time
Much like Norwalk virus, Vibrio vulnificus is associated with
raw seafood, especially oysters and clams. Symptoms start as early as 12
hours but usually last no more than 3 days following exposure.
Gastroenteritis is accompanied by abdominal pain, diarrhea and vomiting.
The results can be devastating for individuals with liver
disease, blood disorders or compromised immune systems. Blood clotting
irregularities also may accompany Vibrio vulnificus.
People at high risk of serious illness should avoid raw
"Vigilance remains the best safeguard against foodborne
illness, especially this time of year when so much food is prepared and
consumed," Weese stresses. "This should begin with safety around the kitchen
and dining areas of the home, taking care that countertops and other surfaces
are as free as possible from viruses, bacteria and toxins that ultimately may
end up in the food we eat.
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