US restaurant chain Chipotle Mexican Grill has made the news again. According to Reuters, 80 Boston students fell ill after visiting one of its local restaurants. The culprit is a highly contagious norovirus (also known as the “winter vomiting bug”), transmitted through fecal contamination of food and water.

It is among the known causes for the so-called “food poisoning” – a condition involving the inflammation of the stomach and the small intestine. Chipotle is not at its first such scandal this year – it has been the protagonist of a scandal involving E. coli, which has infected over 50 people in 9 states.

Food Poisoning

What is food poisoning?

Food poisoning – also referred to as foodborne illness – is quite common. Most of the time it is caused by the contamination of foods with an infectious agent, like a bacterium, a virus, a parasite or even a toxin.

These often cause a set of symptoms that are similar (as they all affect the gastrointestinal tract) which includes vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain, sometimes fever and aches.

Causes

The direct causes of food poisoning are bacteria, viruses and parasites contaminating the food we consume. There are quite a few agents known to cause this condition, with E. Coli, Salmonella, noroviruses and mycotoxins.

The indirect cause of these infections is what’s more interesting. The most common ones are improper handling, preparation, and storage of foods. At home we are mindful of what we put in our mouth – we never consume food that’s obviously rotten or altered in any other way.

But at restaurants – like the above mentioned Chipotle – we only see the result, which may or may not be carrying something that can make us sick.

The most common agents causing food poisoning

According to statistics, there are about 50 million cases of food poisoning a year in the US alone. The most common causal agents are the norovirus and Salmonella.

The norovirus is transmitted in a variety of ways, from person to person contact to fecal contamination of food and water, via the aerosolization of the virus and contaminated surfaces.

What’s common in these methods is that they all involve materials exiting the gastrointestinal tract – diarrhoea and vomiting.

This makes you rethink your trust in any place serving food to the public – especially because the washing of the hands and the disinfection of surfaces are highly effective methods of preventing its spread.

Dirty kitchen food poisoning

The other major culprit for food poisoning is Salmonella. It can survive inside hosts or even in water or meltwater. It is a common pathogen at farms, often silently contaminating eggs inside the chicken – even before the shell is formed. Infected meat or eggs look and smell normal.

But salmonella can also enter your body through unwashed fruit and vegetables, and even nut butter and other foods.

How to avoid food poisoning?

The prevention of food poisoning is important at home, but a must at places serving food to the public. There are regulations in place with the goal of avoiding a public health hazard which must be followed to the letter.

Restaurant kitchens are required to store meat in a sufficiently cold environment, wash and disinfect eggs before use. The personnel is required to maintain strict personal hygiene. Sick people should not even get close to the kitchen.

But the fact that outbreaks still occur shows that these regulations are not always followed.

To avoid food poisoning at home you can follow these simple rules:

  • Always wash your hand thoroughly before handling food
  • Avoid eating anything that is obviously spoiled
  • When cooking seafood, only use fresh and carefully selected raw materials
  • Make sure the drippings from uncooked meat, poultry and seafood don’t contaminate other foods
  • Don’t leave food, dairy products, and meats at room temperature for an extended time.
  • Refrigerate leftovers as soon as possible
  • Keep your kitchen clean – wash any utensils used to prepare meat thoroughly before putting them away.
  • Disinfect the cutting boards used to cut meat periodically (preferably once a week)
  • Wash fruit and vegetables thoroughly if you plan to eat them raw
  • Cook meats through properly to kill any possible pathogens
  • When serving meat rare, make sure its outside is cooked properly
  • Store raw foods separately from ready to eat foods to avoid cross-contamination
  • And, for health’s sake, always wash your hands after using the bathroom or before handling food of any kind!!!!