Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Don’t Invite Food-borne Illnesses for Holidays

PULLMAN, Wash. — They have us outnumbered, attacking in hordes numbering in the millions, even billions. They are meaner and tougher than we are. “They” are the organisms that cause food-borne illnesses — E. coli, Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes, Cyclospora cayetanesis, hepatitis A, Vibrio vulnificus and other disease agents.

Don’t invite them to your holiday parties and don’t give them away in food presents, advises Val Hillers, Washington State University’s extension food specialist.

Hillers says everyone thinks food-borne illnesses are misfortunes that happen to someone else. That’s probably what a host family thought when it served Thanksgiving dinner last month to nearly 90 guests at a gathering near Pasadena, Calif.

Dr. Shirley Fannin, director of disease control programs for the Los Angeles Department of Health Services reported more than half of the guests apparently suffered salmonella poisoning. Thirteen people required hospitalization. Authorities believe the bacteria lurked inside turkey or other meat products that were not adequately refrigerated or cooked. Children and elderly guests were most affected.

Fannin said the infection apparently resulted from food being left out because of insufficient refrigerator or stove-top space for food to feed 80 to 90 people in a house where normally only five or six people eat.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration reports 7 million cases of food-borne illnesses kill an estimated seven thousand people in the United States each year.

Hillers says salmonella, a bacteria, causes more food-borne illnesses in the United States than any other organism. There are several strains of salmonella, but enteritidis and typhimuriam are the most common of those associated with food-borne illnesses.

Many types of animals can harbor salmonella, including poultry, cattle, pigs and humans. When you eat contaminated food, the salmonella bacteria take up residence in your small intestine. Symptoms typically show up in eight to 72 hours. They include nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, fever and headache. To avoid salmonella infections, cook foods thoroughly, avoid raw egg dishes and wash hands, surfaces and equipment after touching raw meat or poultry.

E. coli 0157.H7 bacteria is less common than Salmonella, but an illness caused by E. coli can be very serious. In our intestines, the bacteria produces toxins that cause dysentery and in severe cases, kidney damage.

While the bacteria is associated mostly with meats, Hillers cautions that it can contaminate unpasteurized apple cider and fresh vegetables. E. coli 0157.H7 is killed by completely cooking ground meats (160 degrees F, or higher) and heating fresh apple cider.

Listeria monocytogenes is a bacterium usually associated with unpasteurized milk, soft-ripened cheese, raw vegetables, raw or undercooked meat and poultry and raw and smoked fish. It can cause miscarriage, meningitis and encephalitis. Hillers recommends thoroughly washing all raw vegetables. Each leaf of lettuce or cabbage should be washed separately. Meats should be well cooked and only pasteurized dairy products should be used.

Cyclospora cayetanesis is a one-celled parasite found in soil or water that comes into contact with infected feces. Cyclospora are most common in tropical climates but outbreaks have occurred in the United States from imported berries. Since berries are impossible to thoroughly wash, the Food and Drug Administration is working with Central American berry growers to identify the source of the Cyclospora and find ways to control contamination.

Hepatitis A virus causes fever, nausea and jaundice. The illness may not appear until 30 days after eating contaminated food, which has been polluted by infected feces. Usually it is linked to water or shellfish from water contaminated with human sewage and foods prepared or served by a person infected with hepatitis A who didn’t adequately wash his or her hands after using the toilet. Good sanitary and personal hygiene practices help prevent the spread of hepatitis A.

Vibrio vulnificus is most commonly associated with raw shellfish. It causes gastroenteritis and is especially dangerous to people with liver disease. Hillers advises never to serve or eat raw oysters.

For additional information, visit Washington State University’s Food Safety Resources home page on the World Wide Web. It has links to The Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Consumer Information Catalog, Food and Nutrition Information Center, Food Safety and Inspection Service, National Food Safety Database, Council Against Health Fraud, National Center for Nutrition and Dietetics of the American Dietetics Association, The Food and Nutrition Information Center, and the International Food Information Council Foundation. Many of these sites also link to other sources of food safety information.

You will find the WSU site at: http://foodsafety.wsu.edu/. If you don’t have home access to the World Wide Web, chances are your local library is hooked up.

– 30 –