Food Poisoning: A Threat to Human Health

An Overview

 Food poisoning is an illness caused by eating contaminated, spoiled, or toxic foods. It is also referred to as a food-borne illness. The burden of poisoning is a global concern and millions of people get sick from contaminated food. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), six hundred million (600,000,000) people in the world fall ill after consuming contaminated food each year and of these millions of people 420,000 die, including 125,000 children under the age of five years. The United Nations has set 7th June of every year to mark World Food Safety Day to raise awareness on food poisoning. Thus, this calls for the general public (farmers, food processors, food handlers and vendors, and consumers) to develop food safety culture to ensure that food poisoning is kept at bay at every point.

For better understanding, food poisoning is not a situation where someone intentionally introduces a substance into your food to harm or to kill you. NO! That’s an attempted murder. 
Causes of food poisoning: 

Food poisoning may be caused by microorganisms (bacteria or their toxins, viruses, and fungi), chemicals and parasites. Bacteria food poisoning is the most prevalent of all food poisoning. Bacteria responsible for causing foodborne illnesses are referred to as pathogenic bacteria. They are Salmonella, Escherichia coli, Listeria, Clostridium perfringens, Staphylococcus aureus. Clostridium botulinum, Shigella species, and Vibro species. Food poisoning caused by viruses occur in rare cases but can be fatal. An example is the Norovirus. Parasites on the other hand have led to several cases of food poisoning, albeit not as common as bacteria. The most common fooborne parasites are protozoa, roundworms and tapeworms. 
How can food get contaminated:

 Food can be contaminated by infectious organisms, chemicals, parasites, and physical materials at any point of production.  Contamination may occur as a result of poor agronomic practices (for example improper use of agrochemicals), poor manufacturing and storage practices in the food industry and from errors during preparation at home or in other places where the food is prepared, served and consumed.  It is pertinent to know that food which can cause food poisoning may appear very harmless, that is, the taste, appearance, and colour could be normal with no evidence of spoilage. Although in some cases, foods which can cause food poisoning may have some evidence of spoilage. Water is a potential source of contamination, especially unclean water.  Dust and dirty from the soil and environment can easily blow onto foods after being prepared and cause contamination. Also, insects such as cockroaches, beetles, and flies are not exempted; they carry bacteria on their bodies and may also deposit their toxins in food.
Symptoms of food poisoning

Symptoms of food poisoning can vary, depending on the source of contamination or agent of contamination. They may be observed after a few hours (1 – 6 hours) after the consumption of contaminated food.  Food poisoning can be mild or severe, depending on the infectious dose or the contaminant. However, untreated mild food poisoning may cause chronic diseases. Common symptoms of mild food poisoning include at least three of the following: abdominal cramps, diarrhea, vomiting, and loss of appetite, mild fever, weakness, nausea, and headaches. While the symptoms of severe food poisoning include: diarrhea lasting for more than three days, a fever higher than 101.5°F, difficulty in seeing or speaking, severe dehydration, which may include dry mouth, passing little or no urine, bloody urine, difficulty in breathing and in some cases death.Advice: Please contact your doctor or pharmacist if you experience any of these symptoms.
Who can be affected by food poisoning?

Honestly speaking everyone can be down with food poisoning. However, there are groups that are more at risk than the others. These groups are the infants and children, elderly individuals, those with a low immune system and pregnant women.  According to researchers, pregnant women are more at risk because their bodies are coping with changes to metabolism and circulatory system.
How can food poisoning/foodborne diseases be prevented?

Well, food poisoning can be prevented but it requires deliberate human efforts to do so. There are four basic steps to preventing food poisoning. The steps are simply referred to as the Four Cs and it involves more than just being clean. By deliberately practicing the Four Cs, food processor, handlers and consumers can avoid food poisoning and other illnesses. 1. Cleaning 2. Cooking 3. Chilling 4. Cross-contamination (Separate)

Many consumers fail to wash their hands and kitchen surfaces before preparing food, despite it being the first step in safe food handling? To prevent food poisoning, one should regularly wash hands, food contact surfaces and utensils while preparing food. This method is called “clean as you go”. Effective cleaning involves removing soil and debris, scrubbing kitchen surfaces with soapy water and rinsing properly, using portable or drinking water for cleaning; these help to reduce contamination of the food preparation room. The hands should be washed with warm water and soap for 20 seconds before and after eating and before handling or serving food. Cleaning at all times engenders a sanitary environment. The cleaning materials used for proper cleaning are detergents (it dissolve grease and help remove left over and sticky foods, detergents do not necessarily kill bacteria; disinfectants (reduce the number of bacteria to a safe level), sanitizers (remove grease and dirt and disinfect), and sterilizers (kill bacteria organisms completely). 

To maintain a high standard safe food, food should be cooked properly and heated for a long enough time at a high enough temperature. Cooking or reheating food properly kills most of the harmful bacteria and organisms that may cause food poisoning and infection. Food should be cooked to a temperature of at least 70°C or reheated to at least a 75°C.

Cross-contamination usually occurs when raw foods are mishandled, causing pathogenic organisms to multiply and spread throughout the food preparation or service area. Contamination can be either direct or indirect. Direct contact is the situation where food touches or drips onto another food and indirect where bacteria on hands, work surfaces, equipment are spread to food. However, to prevent cross-contamination the food handler or processor must separate raw meat, poultry, and seafood from other foods, especially the ready-to-eat foods. Separate raw fruits and vegetables from the washed and ready-to-eat fruits. Hands should always be washed after handling raw food, waste food and going to the toilet. Raw and ready-to-eat food should be stored separately. Covering food properly also prevents contamination from pests and insects. 

Foods left for more than 4 hours are susceptible to infestation and attack by microorganisms, however, leftover foods should be refrigerated at safe temperature necessary to keep the food safe. Reducing the temperature below 5°C slows the activity of microorganisms, thereby reducing the risk of food poisoning.

Chinaza Arinzechukwu ( A Nigerian Food Scientist & Founder of Safe Food for All)


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