June 19, 2014

Always report food-borne illnesses, K-State extension specialist says

Karen Blakeslee went with her mom to a restaurant one day two years ago. Both got sick afterward. Really sick.

Karen Blakeslee went with her mom to a restaurant one day two years ago. Both got sick afterward. Really sick.

After that, Blakeslee said, she failed to do something she now says everybody ought to do.

She failed to report what looked to her like food poisoning.

“I confess,” said Blakeslee, an extension specialist in food science for Kansas State University. “I should practice what I preach.”

Food poisoning, also known as food-borne illness, is one of the most severely underreported health problems in the country, she said. Health officials regard it as a serious national problem putting many at risk, she said. Failing to report it probably leads to more illnesses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 20,000 people got sick this way last year – and she said no one believes that number. The real number is likely much, much higher.

We need to do several things, but the two most important, she said, are to wash our hands a lot more – before we cook, even before we eat in a restaurant – and to report these illnesses when they happen. Go to the doctor or the emergency room or, at a minimum, call the local county health department and report what happened.

Most people don’t report such an illness, she said. Sometimes they aren’t sure whether it’s food poisoning. “Or they are embarrassed,” she said.

One complication: Some food poisoning cases involve bacteria that take days or weeks to develop after you eat the food.

Food safety people like Blakeslee do what they can to coach people, and regulators impose food safety standards on businesses. “But food safety needs to involve the consumer as well,” she said.

Symptoms may include vomiting, diarrhea, headache and fever. Some people also may have dizziness, double vision, dehydration and lethargy.

Failing to report these problems doesn’t do any favors for the food or dining industry, she said.

Besides washing up, cooking at home ought to involve stove heat beyond 160 degrees. And don’t use color – in other words that pink color – to gauge whether the meat is cooked, she said. Cook it beyond pink, especially with ground beef, which gets ground up in machines that may not have been properly cleaned. Don’t cross-contaminate foods. When you cook, don’t let the meat get near salads or other foods on the counter.

Reporting illness might prevent more people from getting sick. Maybe the restaurant or the food manufacturer has an equipment problem that is contaminating food, Blakeslee said. Maybe there’s a processing procedure they need to improve. Maybe they need to demand that their employees wash their hands more. Whatever it is, reporting the problem can help stop it, she said. No one should hesitate.

Not even her, she said.

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