A-Z Food Safety


Food-borne illness, more commonly known as food poisoning, is an illness caused by the ingestion of food or water that has been contaminated with pathogenic microorganisms, toxins, or chemicals. Every year, 48 million Americans have reported experiencing a food-borne illness. Out of those, about 128,000 have to be hospitalized. More food is being processed, which means more production facilities and more room for contamination. Food safety is monitored by different government agencies: the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). These agencies are working to ensure the safety and quality of the food we eat.

The two most common microorganisms that contaminate our food are viruses and bacteria. A virus is an infectious agent that survives only by infecting and reproducing inside living cells.

Norovirus, also known as the “stomach flu,” is a highly contagious virus. It infects 21 million Americans every year.

Symptoms come on suddenly and gastroenteritis, the inflammation of the stomach lining and intestines, occurs. This causes stomach cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea. Bacteria are cellular organisms and many are actually beneficial and crucial to our health. Pathogenic bacteria causes illness when we ingest it from undercooked or raw foods. This bacteria can damage our cells and tissues or secrete a toxin that damages our cell. Parasites are another less common microorganism that accounts for only 2% of foodborne illness. Some examples are helminths, protozoa, and fungi.

Some illness are not caused by the bacteria or fungi, but toxins that are secreted by the bacteria or fungi. Toxins are any harmful substance that has been produced by an organism and harms tissues or causes harmful immune responses. They bind to body cells and cause various different symptoms depending on the type of cell they infect. An example of a bacterial toxin is a neurotoxin produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum.

The toxin causes paralysis by blocking the nerve transmission to muscle cells. A common source of the toxin botulinum is from a damaged can.

If you find a damaged can or one that spurts liquid when you open it, immediately throw it out. Some fungi produce mycotoxins that are most commonly found in grains that are stored in moist environments. There are many different types of microorganisms that can contaminate our food. Our body has developed a defense system to tackle these toxins.

Our body responds to these contaminants in a variety of ways. Our saliva kills many of the contaminants with antimicrobial enzymes. The hydrochloric acid in our stomach also destroys some of the invaders. Our gastrointestinal tract then uses vomiting and/or diarrhea as a means of attempting to expel the contaminants that are not destroyed by our bodily attacks. White blood cells from our immune system activate to create an inflammatory response. This can cause nausea, fatigue, fevers, and muscle aches as our body tries to fight against the contaminants.

Temperature, humidity, acidity, and oxygen content are four different environmental factors that affect the survival and growth of microorganisms. Most enzymes thrive in what we call the “danger zone” of 40°F to 140°F. Some require a certain amount a water vapor to grow and others need to be exposed to air.

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