Let’s Talk Food Poisoning

So, back in the culinary school days, I had to take a sanitation class. Let’s just say that it freaked me out. Although the class was supposed to cover a wide range of sanitation issues that may occur in various professional kitchens, it really dealt with food poisoning. The numerous and easy ways someone could get poisoned by the very sustenance we need for life. I didn’t eat out for quite some time after that class.

Unfortunately for me, I love eating out. I had no choice but to jump back on that band wagon. I say unfortunately for me because last week I got not just a touch of food poisoning, but a lay you low, horror show of gastrointestinal distress. I’m not going to go into the gory details, but I have not had solid food since Thursday and my stomach is still more than wonky.

My pain shall be your warning. And, so the lesson on food poisoning begins. Obviously, you can get poisoned by food either in a restaurant or at home.

Restaurants

As a consumer, there’s really not much you can do to prevent being food poisoned in a restaurant–besides not eating at visibly disgusting establishments. But, here’s the tricky bit, a perfectly decent place may have be a monstrosity when it comes to sanitation. Sometimes you just can’t tell from the outside. If you know for a fact that you got food poisoning from a restaurant (for example, everyone ate the hummus appetizer and everyone got ill), then you should call the health department. Why bother? Well, to save other people from getting ill. If the health department receives enough complaints, then they go check the restaurant out, the restaurant cleans up it’s act, and everyone lives happily ever after. And, for children, senior citizens, and people with compromised immune systems, that call could save a life. I’m serious. Look it up. People die from eating out. (In Chicago, calling the health department is as easy as dialing 311.)

At Home

Here’s where you can really do the most good. And, quite frankly, it amazes me that we all don’t get food poisoning from our own stupidity more often. I’m not going to go through all of the ways that the food you prepare is probably tainted, but here are my favorites:

  1. Cross contamination: You cut up raw chicken and then slice raw veggies on that same cutting board without washing the cutting board or the knife. Easy solution: Buy a few color-coded cutting boards, wash the knife. But, hey, you’re smart. You knew that already. So, you cut up your raw chicken and switch knives and cutting boards to cut up your raw veggies. Did you wash your hand in between? And, there’s your cross contamination. But, you’re going to cook the veggies, so that will get rid of all the bad ick from the chicken. Not necessarily. Your veggies might not get to a high enough temperature to kill off the E. coli or other germs. Besides, washing your hands a few more times never hurt.
  2. Washing your hands: While we’re on the subject, always wash your hands before preparing any sort of food. It’s an obvious one, but the food poisoning that can rain down on you for not doing this one are pretty grim. You really want to smear feces bits into your PB&J? I didn’t think so.
  3. Time and temperature: You need to keep your hot foods hot and your cold foods cold. This doesn’t just mean don’t leave the egg salad out in the sun at a picnic. It means if you make some soup and have leftovers, you need to either chill those leftovers right away or keep them simmering on the stove until you can. Bacteria and other nasties like to grow in that tepid zone we call room temperature. That’s the other reason why all the cooking shows say to defrost your meat in the fridge rather than on the counter top. And, you know what? Some of the those bacteria don’t go away when you cook the meat.
  4. Foreign substances: You think this is an easy one. Sure, you’re not going to eat anything with a staple in it. If you find a finger in your salad bag, you’re going to call someone about it. But what about that melon you’re going to cut up for a snack? You should probably wash the outside before you slice it. Think about the poor guy following a diesel truck, picking melons. (You’re with me already on the diesel fumes on your melons, right? I don’t have to talk about how he’s relieving himself on your honeydew.) And, you’re going to put your knife through that rind into that lovely melon and serve it up to your kids. Good for you! Please wash it first.
  5. Foreign substances again: And, that goes for those pre-washed bags of lettuce. If you want to do something right, do it yourself.
  6. Baked potatoes: So, this is a weird one that I have to throw in. If you cook your baked potatoes in aluminum foil, don’t leave them in the foil for very long. It can cause botulism. It’s rare, but still. Why do you need the foil, just microwave them.
  7. Rice: Yeah, it’s always the blandest of the starches that cause the most problems. Rice can harbor Bacillus cereus. And, as we all know, if it’s Latin in the food world, it will make you sick. This is why I skip the fried rice at the China buffet. (Hell, #3 is why I typically skip the buffet line all together).

OK, those are just the quick and dirty ways that your food can kill you. I’m now off my soap box and crawling back to the bathroom. I will let you know how long the human body can exist on Gatorade. (Paul got me purple, so I’m in good shape! God bless that man.)

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