The villain in your fridge: 5 ways to avoid food poisoning

Editor’s Note: Vital Signs is a monthly program bringing viewers health stories from around the world.

Story highlights

1 in 6 people Americans get sick from foodborne illnesses

Unwashed vegetables and undercooked meats are prime sources of illness

Minced meat is a regular culprit and should be cooked thoroughly regardless of the meat

CNN  — 

Most people have experienced that unfortunate feeling in their gut making them run in search of the nearest bathroom.

The cause was most likely a delicious meal the previous day – now deeply regretted in hindsight.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 48 million Americans – 1 in 6 people – get sick from foodborne illnesses each year, with 128,000 hospitalized and 3000 dying from consuming contaminated food.

In reality, the numbers are likely to be much higher as most people don’t visit their doctor due to bouts of diarrhea – they instead prefer to suffer in silence.

But if people become complacent with their eating and hygiene habits, the number of infections will go up courtesy of multiple bacteria growing wildly in foods before they’re eaten.

We’ve put together six common sense ways to avoid food poisoning and the key bacteria behind it – a crib sheet to keep to hand in the kitchen.

1) Don’t leave your food out

Food left out at room temperature for hours at a time – be it at home, a cookout (barbeque), a party, or a restaurant buffet – is a prime source of food poisoning. The spores and toxins released by bacteria commonly found on food can flourish at this temperature.

“[The spores] thrive in the ‘danger zone’ of 40-140 degrees Fahrenheit (5 to 60 degrees Celsius),” says Gabrielle Judd, a registered dietician with the University of Maryland Medical Center. Judd works with transplant patients whose reduced immunity puts them at greater risk from infections – increasing the importance of them eating wisely.

The main spore-producing bacteria are Clostridium perfringens – among the most common causes of food poisoning in the United States. Another culprit multiplying and producing toxins at room temperature is Bacillus, found commonly in rice, soups, sauces and leftovers.

Judd refers to these bugs as “cookout bugs” as this is a typical situation where food is prepared and left out for hours at a time. “Food should not be out for more than two hours at a time,” she says.

On the plus side, infections with these bacteria are unlikely to hospitalize you, but instead leave you poorly for 24 hours. For this same reason, cases of illness often go unreported.

So as spring approaches and brings with it potential for weekend cookouts, don’t forget to use your refrigerator.

2) Be wary of raw poultry

“At least half of all raw chicken carcasses carry significant levels of campylobacter,” says bacteriologist Andrew Roe from the University of Glasgow, who states more than 500,000 cases of food poisoning in the U.K. are caused by these chicken-loving bacteria.

This group of bacteria cause the majority of foodborne infections in the developed world as the bacteria are prevalent in the food chain itself. “Four out of five cases [of food poisoning] are from contaminated poultry,” says Roe.

Poultry expands beyond chicken, with infection also common in other commonly consumed birds with which people may be less vigilant in terms of hygiene.”Turkey and duck are often highly contaminated with Campylobacter so the advice would be to treat them exactly as you would chicken,” says Roe.

Judd adds that “food borne illness likely comes from improper thawing/preparation of meats.”

Luckily, infection is usually self-controlling, meaning people don’t get severely ill but instead recover over time. This low harm associated with infections is why the bacteria are not prioritized for removal from the food chain – unlike salmonella which chickens in the UK are now all vaccinated against.

The solution? Wash your hands when handling poultry, avoid contaminating surfaces and thoroughly cook your meat. Basically, avoid any risk of raw meat entering your body.

“The best way to avoid infection is to make sure all chicken is cooked thoroughly [and] you have good kitchen practices,” says Roe.

3) Learn the perils of minced meats

Chicken is not the only villain among the animal kingdom.

Roe advises to step away from your burger if there is any suspicion about its status as cooked – minced meat can be a potent source of infection.

“Mince products are inherently more risky,” says Roe.

The danger lies in the grinding together of meat – and the increased likelihood of surface bacteria mixing deep into your meat – unlike with a piece of steak.

“A steak is an intact piece of meat. Any contamination will be on the surface,” says Roe. Cooking a steak well on the outside therefore reduces your chances of infection, even if it remains rare inside. But with minced meat the bacteria are mixed into the blend. This applies to any form of burger, be it gourmet or a simple slider handed out as a canapé.

“With ground meat the outside mixes up with all the meat and contaminates the rest,” agrees Judd.

Burgers – a cook-out favourite – combined with the uncontrolled heat of a barbeque through intense, uncontrolled, flames bring a high risk of being cooked on the outside, but raw in the middle.

“People can be quite flippant, but these are the times you’re increasing your risk,” says Roe.

The solution? If you love your burgers, make sure you eat them well-done.

“Be prepared to reject food if not cooked thoroughly,” says Roe

4) Don’t forget to wash your fruit

The first thoughts when assigning blame to a bout of food poisoning commonly go towards meat and poultry, but your fruits and vegetables aren’t as safe as you think.

A 2013 study by the CDC found that 46% of foodborne illnesses in the U.S are caused by fruits, vegetables and nuts. Leafy vegetables were found to cause the most illness, accounting for 22% of all cases in the study – aided by the fact that bacteria, like E. coli, can live within the leaf tissue itself.

“There’s less perceived risk [with fruits and vegetables] so people are more blasé,” says Roe.

Many forms of bacteria are found naturally on the surfaces – or skins – of fruits and vegetables which need washing off before consumption. If not, that slice down the middle can bring those surface bacteria deep down inside the fruit. Judd advises the same rules be applied to all foods with outer skins or rinds – such as oranges, watermelons or cucumbers.

“Most people wash off an apple but with melons assume they don’t have to,” says Judd.

When cutting or peeling such foods, bacteria on the surface can easily spread inside.

“If peeled and washed thoroughly you can reduce your risk quite significantly,” adds Roe.

5) Reheat your leftovers properly

The risk of reheating rice is a common myth propagated as a means of food poisoning – linked with bacillus bacteria found commonly in paddy fields and likely to be present in those rice grains.

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    The bacteria are killed when the rice is cooked, but their spores stay alive and flourish if then left out at room temperature. “The spores grow back into bacteria,” says Roe.

    The solution? Rice should be steaming hot when reheated, to ensure any returning bacteria have died.

    These rules apply for reheated food in general to prevent any new bacteria from thriving – both on your food and in your intestine. “Illness comes from improper management of leftovers,” says Judd who also advises not to keep leftovers for more than 3 to 4 days.

    “If you’re served something that’s inadequately hot…be brave enough to say you’re not happy with it,” says Roe.

    Have you got the (healthy) guts to make a stand?