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Food contamination refers to foods that are spoiled or tainted because they either contain microorganisms, such as bacteria or parasites, or toxic substances that make them unfit for consumption.
Food contamination is a serious issue because it results in foodborne diseases that each year affect an estimated seventy-six million people in the United States, while leading to some 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths. Hence, awareness of potential sources of food contamination is an important component of good nutrition.
Food contamination can be microbial or environmental, with the former being more common. Environmental contaminants that can enter the food supply chain include pesticides, heavy metals, and other chemical agents. Many opportunities exist for food to become contaminated as it is produced and distributed. Toi start with, bacteria are present in the animals raised for food. Meat and poultry can become contaminated during slaughter through cross-contamination from intestinal fecal matter. Similarly, fresh fruits and vegetables can be contaminated if they are washed using water contaminated with animal manure or human sewage. During food processing, contamination is also possible from infected food handlers. Lastly, poor hygiene in the home is also a factor.
Bacterial food contamination
Many bacteria can contaminate food. The most common include the following:.
(Illustration by GGS Information Services/Thomson Gale.)
Spoiled milk is also mostly caused by bacteria such as Lactococcus cremoris or Enterobacter aero-genes, that cause the milk to form long white strands.
Water contamination is usually due to the presence of three bacteria, E. coli, Clostridium perfringens, and enterococci, the bacteria normally found in the feces of people and many animals.
Parasitic food contamination
Parasites are organisms that lives in or on a host, and obtain nourishment without benefiting or killing the host. They enter the body through the mouth when contaminated food or drink is swallowed. There are many different types and range in size from single-celled, microscopic organisms (protozoa) to larger, multi-cellular worms (helminths) that can be seen without a microscope. Parasites that contaminate food include:.
Simple precautions can reduce the risk of contamination. For instance, meat left at room temperature promotes bacterial growth and refrigeration helps to suppress it. One can also be careful about eating certain foods. Eating raw meats and fish should be avoided as well as salads prepared in restaurants where meats and vegetables share a common surface during preparation.
The Mayo Clinic offers the following advice to prevent food contamination at home:.
Food contamination usually causes abdominal discomfort and pain, and diarrhea, but symptoms vary depending on the type of infection. Transmission usually occurs via the fecal/oral route with the ingestion of the pathogen present in the contaminated food. After they are ingested, there is a delay, (incubation period) before symptoms appear, that may range from hours to days, depending on the organism. During this period, the microbes pass through the stomach into the intestine, where they start to multiply. Some types stay in the intestine, others produce a toxin that is absorbed into the bloodstream, and others can directly invade the deeper body tissues. The symptoms depend on the type of infection. Numerous pathogens cause similar symptoms, for instance diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and nausea.
There are many different kinds of foodborne diseases and they may require different treatments, depending on the symptoms they cause. Illnesses that cause diarrhea or vomiting lead to dehydration if the person loses more body fluids and salts (electrolytes) than they take in. Replacing the lost fluids and electrolytes is therefore important. If diarrhea is severe, oral medication such as Ceralyte, Pedialyte or Oralyte, can be taken to replace the fluid losses. Preparations of bismuth subsalicylate, such as Pepto-Bismol, can help reduce the duration and severity of the diarrhea.
Food poisoning is especially serious and potentially life-threatening for young children, pregnant women and their fetuses, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems.
Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) FoodNet surveillance system suggests that although younger individuals usually face far higher rates of infection from foodborne pathogens, older adults, along with the very young are more likely to have severe complications from these infections. In particular, research has shown that the elderly are more vulnerable to gastroenteritis-induced deaths. It is also estimated that 2–3% of all acute foodborne illnesses develop secondary long-term illnesses and complications called chronic sequellae. These can occur in any part of the body, such as the joints, nervous system, kidneys, or heart.
A bottle-fed infant is at higher risk for severe infections with bacteria that can grow in a bottle of warm formula if it is left at room temperature for many hours. Particular care is needed to keep baby bottles clean and disinfected. Leftover milk formula or juice should also not be kept in the bottle for many hours.
Leon, W. Is Our Food Safe: A Consumer’s Guide to Protecting Your Health and the Environment.New York, NY: Three Rivers Press (Crown Publishing Group), 2002.
Magan, N., Olsen, M. Mycotoxins in Food: Detection and Control. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2004.
Moffat, C., Whittle, K. J. Environmental Contaminants in Food. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 1999.
Peariso, D. Preventing Foreign Material Contamination of Foods. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Limited, 2005.
Sapers, G. M., Gorny, J. R., Yousef, A. E. Microbiology of Fruits and Vegetables. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2005.
Wilson, C. L., Droby, S. Microbial Food Contamination. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2000.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 1600 Clifton Road, NE, Atlanta, GA 30333. 1-800-CDC-INFO (1-800-232-4636) or 404-639-3534.<www.cdc.gov>.
Food and Drug Administration, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. 5100 Paint Branch Parkway, College Park, MD 20740-3835. 1-888-SAFEFOOD (1-888-723-3663). <vm.cfsan.fda.gov>.
U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food Safety and Inspection Service. Meat and Poultry Hotline: 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854). <www.fsis.usda.gov>.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 1200 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20460. 202-272-0167. <www.epa.gov>.
Monique Laberge, Ph.D.