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salmonellaA 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 exposure.

Campylobacter jejuni

Campylobacter jejuniMost 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 milk.

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.

E.coli O157:H7

E.coli O157H7While 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 O157:H7.

Listeria monocytogenes

Listeria vmonocytogenesOne 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 exposure.

Norovirus (Previously known as Norwalk and Norwalk-like Viruses)

Noroviruses, derived from Norwalk, Ohio, where an norovirus 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 dishSalmonella, 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 dressing.

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.

Staphylococcus aureus

Staphylococcus aureusThis 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 food.

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 of year.

Vibrio vulnificus

Vibrio vulnificusMuch 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 seafood.

The Best Safeguard: Vigilance

"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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