Food-Borne Toxins: Unwanted Dinner Guests

Food poisoning. What are the first things that come to mind? That’s right…one bucket, maybe two buckets (vomiting and diarrhea, that is). Not all food poisoning is that simple though. Some food-borne toxins can cause neurological symptoms and even death. (Toxicologists are always ready to share scary news) But remember…common things are common (and those last 2 are not, thankfully).

After what I suspect is a food-borne illness in a family member this past weekend, I wanted to post some pearls about food-borne illness. This is for you picnic-goers as well as attorneys thinking about current or upcoming cases related to food poisoning.

It is difficult to tease out food-borne illness symptoms from those of other illnesses (such as gastroenteritis). But there are a few clues. The typical “24 hour stomach bug” is often a food-borne illness. That fast and furious “bug”, sometimes accompanied by a high fever and lots of “fluid losses”, has food poisoning written all over it. I say “probably” because without laboratory testing for the organism, we don’t know. This is almost never done. Why? Because the symptoms in your run-of-the-mill “food poisoning” episode are miserable, but fortunately usually short-lived (so no reason to get labs). That being said, I have yet to see food itself tested in such cases to prove the source of food poisoning.

The other clue that an illness is due to food poisoning is a story of numbers. Who else ate the food? And did they all get sick? This is not a slam dunk as sometimes one person may eat a portion with less bacteria. For example, my significant other and I shared a salad with chicken. Several hours later, he was ill. I was not. Does that mean it wasn’t food poisoning because I didn’t get sick? Not necessarily. He may’ve eaten a piece of chicken with the “X” on it, so to speak, while I didn’t.

So there are 3 clues (but not definitive ways) to put food poisoning higher up on the list of diagnoses when there are fever, vomiting, and diarrhea: illness lasts for 24 hours or less; others who ate the same food also got sick; and timing (the illness is not immediate. It takes a few hours, maybe even takes a couple of days to show up after eating the suspicious food). With that, keep these tips in mind from a toxicologist: keep hot foods hot, and cold foods cold; if in doubt, throw it out; and fish should smell like…”almost nothing” (if it smells strong, it’s rotting). And pack those ice packs for your summer picnics.

For further info on safe food handling and storage for meat, poultry, or egg products, call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline toll free at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854). #foodborneillness #toxicology #foodsafetymatters