The Safe Eater’s Guide to Beating Bad Food Bugs

Photo by NatalieMaynor via Flickr

Foodborne illnesses are no fun. At best, you endure a day or two of nausea and digestive trouble. At worst, the most deadly bacteria can kill and even spread to other people. With the restaurant regulations and FDA rules in America, few people worry about food pathogens or toxins. But the broad array of bacteria and poisons that can infect foodremains a key concern, at home and around the world. Food prepared in your own kitchen can sometimes be the most dangerous, so take a moment to brush up on your bad-food knowledge and prevent foodborne illnesses in your family.

Food Gone Bad: Pathogens and Toxins

  • Campylobacter Jejuni

    While the name may sound unfamiliar, most causes of diarrhea in the United States come down to this little bacteria. Even in very small numbers, it can infect and lead to several days of frequent bathroom visits. It is especially common among infants, but you can avoid running into Campy by never drinking raw milk or untreated water, and always thoroughly cooking fish or poultry.

  • Bacillus Cereus: When you have a “classic” case of food poisoning, this bacterium is probably the source. It leads to bad cramps, nausea, and vomiting the day you ingest it, and can occur in meat, milk, vegetables, rice, starchy foods, and dairy products – not a small list. Clean food well and always cook according to recipes to avoid this one.

  • Clostridium Botulinum


    This bacterium creates a potent toxin that leads to double-vision and nausea followed by muscle paralysis and constipation. It can be deadly to infants and sometimes even adults. Most Clost bacteria are found in moist, low-acid foods – think home-canned vegetables or raw meats. Honey is particularly associated with this pathogen.

  • E. Coli

    Pathogenic Escherichia gets a lot of press. The entire family of bacteria can cause severe diarrhea, cramps, and lasting kidney damage. Always cook meat thoroughly to help avoid it (especially with beef). Purifying water and washing veggies can also help.

  • Listeria Monocytogenes

    This lesser-known pathogen may pose a greater danger to the unwary because it can grow slowly in refrigerators on typical “ready to eat” foods. It causes flu-like fevers, headaches, and nausea in most cases…but pregnant women often suffer deadly meningitis symptoms and unpreventable miscarriages. If it has been in the fridge for a while then throw it out.

  • Salmonella Strains

    Salmonella infects eggs and can also be found in dairy products and meat. Cook your eggs well and buy pasteurized products to avoid the slew of digestive problems caused by this bacteria.

  • Hepatitis A, Shigella, Staphylococcus Aureus, etc

    These pathogens and others like them all result from poor hygiene. The pathogens live on skin or in fecal matter and are accidentally transferred when people prepare food without thoroughly washing their hands. Fevers, nausea, cramps, and other digestive problems result.

  • Mycotoxins

    This is a general toxin category that describes any toxin produced by mold. The most dangerous type is aflatoxin, a cancer-causing poison caused by nut and grain molds. Pay attention to quality, wash food thoroughly, and always throw out bad or mildewy foods rather than trying to cut the unwanted section away.

Plant-Defense Chemicals: Biotoxins protect many plants from predators and make for deadly additions to meals. If you like to harvest your own ingredients, be sure to learn your toxic plants – things like foxglove, mushrooms, and clovers.

Marine Toxins: Fish and shellfish poisonings can be deadly. Clean, prepare, and cook your seafood properly to avoid potential problems…and make sure you know exactly what you are eating. Stay away from the puffer fish.

Heavy Metals: From arsenic and cadmium to copper and mercury, metals can have toxic effects and are found throughout contaminated food, especially seafood but also some grains. Antimony soaks in when foods come in contact with metallic surfaces for long periods of time – the same with tin, which can also be poisonous in high doses. Metals cause lasting damage to many biological systems.

Pesticides: Not everyone is equally affected by pesticides, but wash your food thoroughly to avoid any associated problems.

Tips On Food Safety

At the Grocery Store:

  • Buy organic foods from trusted sources
  • Wash all foods thoroughly, no matter how pretty the packaging
  • Don’t let frozen foods thaw out in the car

In the Restaurant:

  • Look for posted regulations and hand-washing signs that show attention to cleanliness
  • Avoid ordering seafood on “off” seasons or toxic seafoods like puffer fish
  • Ask that meat be well-done whenever possible

Preparing Food:

  • Never mix raw meat or anything it touches with other food
  • Do not let any food sit out unless it is ripening
  • Use meat thermometers
  • Always wash your hands before and after any preparation
  • Throw away old food, no matter how it looks

Preventing Food Bugs

Most foodborne illness can be prevented with proper attention and good habits like always washing your food! Spare your family and your body the trouble associated with bad food by sticking to clean cooking habits. Eat at places where you trust the food is properly prepared, and do not leave illness up to chance – stay aware and take measures to prevent problems.

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