Food as Poison, and Food Borne Illnesses

During holiday occasions, healthy dietary practice is blatantly ignored, regardless of consequence and the often unpleasant aftermath following a traditional holiday meal. A quick example is a Labor Day Barbecue; a lot of people go out and enjoy the traditional holiday meals. Following these indulgences, often people wonder why they do not feel quite “right” by the end of a long weekend–or, perhaps, an illness may manifest soon after a few days worth of participation in many holiday festivities.

Food borne illnesses–how do we make ourselves sick and how do we end up accidentally making our friends and family sick as well?

Despite good intentions, we manage to do this by trying to be helpful and hospitable. What do we do? We invite people over, and often get together to eat and and drink–it is pretty standard in our culture to crack open a few beers, maybe have some wine, and consume some of the most common and readily available beverages–sodas. All three types of beverages previously mentioned are, in fact, three major classes of poisons. With full knowledge of the health risks associated with these products, we all seem to consume them at one point or another. However, in moderations, most individuals fare just fine.

There are, things even in moderation, that may not do so well for us. One of these things in particular, is poorly controlled or poorly prepared foods. What I mean by this, is that it is quite easy to have a “gourmet meal” and end up very ill. On the other hand, you can have something at a fast food restaurant and do perfect well. The difference in outcome is how the food is handled, both before and after it is cooked. Proper preparation of foods is very important, particularly concerning the consumption of meat and dairy products. Some of these illnesses contracted from poorly prepared foods are just a nuisance. You may find yourself a little antisocial and indisposed for a number of hours. Depending on the situation and individual, symptoms of food borne illness may go unnoticed entirely. However, depending on which illness an individual is subjected to, “Food poisoning” can sometimes be dangerous and even life-threatening.

We all read about and hear about E. Coli outbreaks on the news and witness the media’s dramatic flare surrounding these occurrences. E. Coli is actually something that every one of us carries in our system. Everyone comes in contact with E. Coli organisms on a daily basis. Immediately, right now, you are touching surfaces that are contaminated with E. Coli.

What happens, is that most of the E. Coli varieties, or serotypes, are rather benign. These benign E. Coli do what they are going to do, and without unpleasant consequence. On the other hand, there are certain serotypes of E. Coli which are notorious for causing severe illness.

There are certain strains of E. Coli that can cause kidney failure, and even kill–yet many of these will not touch a particular person at all. Why? when you take an individual from Central or South America, they are used to and are regularly exposed to the local E. Coli species or varieties in their environment. At one point or another, someone who is regularly exposed to the same varieties of E. Coli has already previously gotten sick from it enough times to form an immunity to these particular strains.

Problems often occur when these Central or South american natives come here, get exposed to a whole different set of E. Coli varieties than their bodies are accustomed to, and they end up with something awful, like “Tourista.” They end up with the same kind of “Montezuma’s Revenge” illness that we Americans often get when we go to Central America.

When traveling to Central and South America, we often warn each other not to drink the water, but the joke is, si that the folks from Central and South America, know not to drink the water when they come here.

The problem is the same, no matter where the person comes from; when an individual is exposed to a different set of environmental conditions, including unfamiliar varieties of bacterial inhabitants, it is very easy to get severely ill.

E. Coli is one of the most common of all food borne poisonings. Why? You do not touch your food unless you have washed your hands. You would think that would be pretty basic, yet two thirds, maybe even three quarters of the people that use a public restroom do not ever touch the sink. In any public restroom you may find yourself in, carefully observe your surroundings and the hand washing habits of others also using the same facility. You almost have to marvel at how some of these people actually survived all these years without contracting or spreading some sort of deadly communicable illness.

E. Coli is very, very common, but there are other bacterial infections which pose more of a health risk. E. Coli is just the one that seems to hit the news most frequently, but Listeria is the one that kills.

What has to happen for someone to contract a killer infection like Listeria? A regular piece of steak is fairly safe because the meat’s natural and unadulterated structure provides a natural seal that prevents many pathogens from entering the tissue. Bacteria do not easily enter uncut meat. Pathogens will grow on the meat’s surface, but they do not frequently get through this natural barrier or travel into the meat itself.

As soon as you start to slice the meat, grind it, or cop it, and compromise its overall structural integrity, whatever microorganisms existing on the surface, are not transported deep into the meat, where it will multiply prolifically. This is how E. Coli ends up in hamburgers, but not Sirloin or T-Bone.

The same principle applies to other meats as well, including chicken and turkey. Why is it that sliced turkey in particular can be so dangerous? Even after just a few days in the refrigerator, visible changes in the meat can be observed. The main “take home fact” here, is that poultry does not age well, but other types of meat can fare well with a few days of refrigeration. There are a lot of people that will not even consider eating a piece of pork or beef until it falls off the meat hook. Red meat improves in taste as it ages, but only to a certain point. Poultry only declines as time passes, even when refrigerated.

Chicken meat is particularly filthy. Salmonella is the usual culprit. Chickens are filthy creatures by nature, and when they meet their end in processing, not much gets cleaned up beforehand. The slaughter and preparation process involves a whole bodied chicken being pulled through baths which contain a substantial amount of their own fecal material. When you prepare chicken, the first thing you have to do is wash it, and it should never touch your counter tops. Why? The chicken breast may come packaged in pristine wrappers, but as soon as it gets sliced directly on a counter top surface, the bacteria in the chicken meat then contaminates that surface, and anything and everything that will subsequently come in contact with it. This includes your hands, your kids’ hands, or whoever. Contaminating household surfaces with poultry is an easy way to make an entire household very ill.

Problems with contamination can also occur at the grocery store, well before your future meal even arrives at home. The typical Saran wrap packaging that is used to package poultry does not always protect the rest of your groceries from being exposed and contaminated. A little drip onto your vegetables can result in disaster.

After twelve to twenty-four hours following the consumption of contaminated poultry, experiencing varying degrees of overall unpleasantness is likely.

The safest way to deal with poultry in the store is to stick them in individual plastic bags. Then, place all produce and other groceries in their own separate bags. Forming more barriers lessens the likelihood of your poultry coming in contact with any other food items and spreading pathogens.

You look around and say, “Do I need to be scared?” “Do I need to be frightened?” “What do I need to do?” The answer is simple: Wash your hands. It is not a big deal. What about your eggs? Use a little soap. Wash your fruit. Put your used dishes straight into the dishwasher or soapy water.

E. Coli is a very common problem. Happily, we are immune to most of the ones that cause illness to visitors. They come here to Orlando from all over the world, they go back and get sick. They are used to it. When we got Paris, or London, or even to Denver, we are like to get sick. Who is more likely to get sick? Individuals who take PPIs or H2 blockers, our friendly Prilosec, Zantac, or Tagamet.

Why? Your stomach acid that is such a nuisance and causes heartburn is there for a reason. One of those reasons is to sterilize the food as it hits the stomach. If you take away that acid, it takes a lower colony count to make an individual very sick. If you were going to expose yourself to salmonella, typically it takes 100,000 organisms, or more, per innoculum, to make somebody ill. Shagalla is much more virulent, and it typically takes 10,000 organisms to make someone fall ill. If someone takes a Tagamet or Zantac, it only takes 2 or 3 of this type of organism to make a person violently ill.

The same thing is true with Hepatitis, or parasites. If the stomach acid is taken away, these people are at the greatest risk for getting sick.

About David S Klein, MD 149 Articles
David S. Klein, MD, FACA, FACPM was born in Washington, DC, and was raised in Chevy Chase, Maryland. He completed his undergraduate education at the University of Maryland with degrees in Chemistry and Psychology. Medical School was completed at the University of Maryland at Baltimore, followed by Internship in General Surgery at the University of North Carolina and Residency in Anesthesiology at the Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. Dr Klein has been practicing medicine since 1983, concentrating in Pain Medicine, Minimally Invasive Medicine and Surgery, and Neuroendocrinology. Earning Board Certification in Anesthesiology, Dr. Klein was elected Fellow in the American College of Anesthesiology, and he was elected Fellow in the American College of Pain Medicine. He is currently an adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Central Florida, School of Medicine. He has focused his private practice on treating patients with hormone imbalance issues, nutritional deficiency related medical problems as well as pain related issues and impairment. With a highly-complex, CLIA licensed laboratory in-house, he has been able to provide rapid-turn around analysis efficiently and cost-effectively. Lecturing extensively nationally as well as internationally, Dr. Klein has authored many articles on topics relating to pain, injury and nutritionally modulated illness. His radio show, “Pain Free Living,” received top ratings during the 6 years it was on the air. Currently practicing in Longwood, Florida, Dr. Klein practices entirely in the office setting.