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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

News Center

Keep Food Safety in Mind to Prevent Foodborne Illness

LAS CRUCES - Christmas comes but once a year, but cases of foodborne illness occur daily. Unfortunately, at this time of year many holiday revelers simply may not recognize that they've come down with a foodborne illness, frequently chalking the discomfort up to the flu and its accompanying unwanted gifts of nausea, fever and diarrhea.

"Age and physical condition place some persons at higher risk than others for foodborne illness," said Nancy Flores, food technology specialist with New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service. "Very young children, pregnant women, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems are at greatest risk from any pathogen."

If you suspect you have a foodborne illness, you should contact your doctor or visit the emergency room, she said. Also, preserve the evidence.

"If you have the packaging material, such as the carton, can or bag that the food came in, save it," she said. "If you have a portion of the suspect food, wrap it securely, write 'danger' on the package and freeze it."

Contact your local health department and turn these items over to them for investigation.

Flores said most foodborne illnesses are caused by bacteria that naturally occur in the environment, and may be present on food when it's purchased. "Raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs are not sterile," she said. "Even produce such as lettuce, tomatoes, sprouts and fruits contains bacteria. The only foods called commercially sterile are canned foods."

Not all bacteria cause disease in humans, however. Some bacteria is needed to make food products such as cheese and yogurt.

Flores said most cases of foodborne illness can be prevented with proper cooking, processing and storing. "Cold foods should be kept cold and hot foods, hot," she said. Bacteria multiply rapidly between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, so food should be stored in the refrigerator or freezer. Leftovers should be stored in shallow containers within two hours of serving.

"But don't pack that refrigerator too much or it can't cool foods properly," Flores said. "When reheating cooked food, heat it to a temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit and maintain hot, cooked food at 140 degrees or above."

Foods, including safely cooked, ready-to-eat foods, can become cross-contaminated with bacteria transferred from raw products and meat juices, food handlers with poor hygiene or other contaminated products.

Flores said if you suspect a foodborne illness caused by food served at a large gathering from a restaurant or other foodservice facility, or if the suspect food is a commercial product, call
your local health department. If the suspect food is a U.S. Department of Agriculture-inspected
product, save all the packaging materials and call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline, (800) 535-4555, or visit their World Wide Web site at www.fsis.usda.gov.

Other information is available on the Web from the Food and Drug Administration at www.cfsan.fda.gov or by calling the FDA Food Information Line at (888) SAFEFOOD.