Clean Up Your Act in the Kitchen

Foodborne illnesses are caused by the consumption of foods contaminated with bacteria, viruses, parasites, or toxins. Some foodborne illnesses cause mild effects, but others are life-threatening. The signs and symptoms of foodborne illnesses include diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, dehydration, and fever. It is possible to prevent the spread of foodborne illnesses by practicing appropriate food safety measures and disinfecting kitchen surfaces each time they are used. Preventing the spread of these illnesses can help save lives.

Foodborne Illnesses

The CDC releases annual reports that contain information about the leading causes of foodborne illness. These reports separate pathogens into groups based on their effects. One group is the pathogens that caused foodborne illnesses that did not lead to hospitalization. This group includes norovirus, Salmonella, Clostridium perfringens, Campylobacter, and Staphylococcus aureus. The second group contains pathogens that caused foodborne illnesses requiring hospitalization. The top pathogens in this group include Salmonella, norovirus, Campylobacter, Toxoplasma gondii, and E. coli. The third group includes pathogens that caused deadly cases of food poisoning. The pathogens in this group include Salmonella, Toxoplasma gondii, Listeria monocytogenes, norovirus, and Campylobacter.

E. coli is normally present in the digestive tracts of humans and animals. These bacteria are essential to humans because they make vitamins. However, this type of bacteria is only helpful when it is confined to the digestive system. If it enters the bloodstream or other parts of the body, it causes serious illness. One type of E. coli bacteria causes intestinal hemorrhaging, making it especially dangerous. Some foods are contaminated with E. coli because they are not prepared or cooked properly.

Salmonella is a type of rod-shaped bacteria that causes salmonellosis in humans. Since stomach acid breaks down this type of bacteria, salmonellosis usually occurs when a human ingests large amounts of Salmonella. Children and elderly adults are very susceptible to this type of infection, so they do not have to consume very much of the bacteria to get sick. After a short incubation period, this germ causes intestinal inflammation and bloody diarrhea. At-risk individuals may also develop dehydration.

Norovirus, also called Norwalk virus, is a type of virus that causes gastrointestinal distress in humans. It is possible to contract this illness by drinking contaminated water or eating contaminated food. Someone who touches an infected surface may also develop this illness after putting the fingers in his or her mouth. Some cases of norovirus are mild, but others cause severe vomiting and diarrhea. The infection typically lasts from one to two days, but it can last longer in severe cases.

Listeriosis is a serious concern in the United States. This disease is caused by Listeria monocytogenes. Pregnant women are especially vulnerable to the effects of listeriosis, which is why they are instructed to avoid luncheon meats and soft cheeses during pregnancy. Infants and adults with compromised immune systems are also very susceptible to this illness. In adults, this bacterium may cause meningitis, septicemia, pneumonia, or endocarditis. Infants born after L. monocytogenes exposure may experience jaundice, shock, vomiting, lethargy, loss of appetite, and respiratory distress.

Campylobacteriosis is a diarrheal infection caused by exposure to Campylobacter jejuni. This illness spreads when people consume contaminated food and water. Campylobacter causes diarrhea, abdominal pain, abdominal cramping, and fever. If the bacteria enter the bloodstream, the infected person can develop a serious infection. The incubation period for this illness is two to five days, which means that symptoms do not appear until two to five days after exposure to the bacteria.

  • What the Heck is an E. Coli?This article explains what E. coli bacteria are and why they are harmful.
  • Listeria InfectionThis page from the CDC discusses listeriosis, an infection caused by Listeria monocytogenes.
  • Norwalk VirusThis article explains the effects of Norwalk virus and describes how it is transmitted.
  • Salmonella Questions and AnswersThe United States Department of Agriculture answers some of the most common questions related to salmonellosis.
  • Clostridium PerfringensThis article from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration explains what C. perfringens is and discusses the foodborne illness it causes.
  • CampylobacteriosisThe New York State Department of Health offers a description of campylobacteriosis, a disease caused by Campylobacter jejuni.
  • Toxoplasma GondiiThis page discusses Toxoplasma gondii, a bacterium found in uncooked and undercooked pork, beef, and lamb.
  • Bacterial Food PoisoningThis resource explains the effects of bacterial food poisoning in humans.
  • Staphylococcus AureusThis resource explains what Staphylococcus aureus is and describes how it causes food poisoning.

Cleaning Tips

Keeping the kitchen clean is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of foodborne illnesses. Countertops are one of the top areas of concern, as preparing contaminated foods on the counters makes it possible for infectious organisms to contaminate other foods. Disinfect counters regularly to kill germs and prevent them from spreading. People concerned about the use of chemicals in their kitchens can use mild soaps or natural ingredients such as vinegar and baking soda. Kitchen sponges are also a major source of bacteria and other infectious organisms. Kill bacteria by placing damp sponges in the microwave for a few seconds. Then wash the sponges to ensure that they are clean. Cleaning cutting boards properly is also important, especially if they have been used to prepare meats and produce. Wash each cutting board thoroughly to prevent the spread of bacteria.

Food Safety

Following basic food safety principles can help cooks prevent food contamination. Use caution when selecting, storing, preparing, and cooking foods. When selecting produce, avoid fruits and vegetables that have visible blemishes or unusual odors. Follow established guidelines for selecting produce that is not overripe. Meat selection is also an important consideration when shopping. Avoid buying meat that has changed color or that has a foul odor. Buying directly from a butcher may reduce the risk of buying contaminated meat, as the meat is typically fresher than meat that has been packaged and transported to a store. Store meat, dairy products, and produce at their recommended temperatures. When preparing foods, use separate cutting boards for meats and produce. If the meat is contaminated, using a second cutting board will prevent the produce from being contaminated. Always cook meat thoroughly, as high temperatures kill many infectious organisms. Prevent the growth of bacteria by storing leftovers in airtight containers. When attending picnics, keep foods made with eggs, mayonnaise, and seafood in chests filled with ice to prevent them from spoiling.

  • Tips for Fresh Produce SafetyThis page includes buying, storage, and preparation tips to help reduce the risk of foodborne illness caused by consuming contaminated produce.
  • Cooking with KidsThis resource offers activities to help parents and caregivers teach kids about the importance of food safety.
  • Food Safety TipsThe Washington State Department of Health offers tips for reducing the risk of foodborne illnesses.
  • Handling Meat SafelyThis article includes tips for preventing the spread of foodborne illness by handling and preparing meat properly.
  • Food Safety at HomeThis page contains a chart of cooking temperatures to help cooks determine if meat and egg dishes are safe to eat.
  • Summer Food Safety Tips (PDF)This resource discusses food safety and storage issues related to the hot temperatures of the summer months.