Food For Thought: Perspectives on Foodborne Illness from Street Medicine Detroit
By: Anirudha Rathnam
Consider this scenario: you’re at a picnic. As the day winds down, you have some leftover food which you decide to divide among your friends and family to take home. You happily take home some delicious potato salad, and end up vomiting the next day. This is a classic example of food poisoning. Potato salad, although delicious, is a popular vehicle for a variety of foodborne illnesses. The reason is because the main ingredient in mayonnaise is raw egg, which can carry salmonella and can nourish thousands of bacteria. Another reason is that potato salad is prepared and served at room temperature, often going without refrigeration for hours or even a whole day. Without refrigeration to keep the bacteria from growing, foodborne bacteria will grow rapidly—the longer the salad stays out, the faster the bacteria grows, which increases your risk of getting sick.
Individuals who are experiencing homelessness are particularly at risk for foodborne illness due to lack of access to fresh food and food refrigeration. Many homeless individuals risk having the occasional upset stomach so that they don’t have to face daily hunger pains. Those who go looking for food that has been discarded by businesses and restaurants take precautions, like staying away from most meat. Still, their risk of foodborne illness is elevated. Food poisoning can be particularly dangerous when one is malnourished and dehydrated. Often fear of being judged prevents individuals experiencing homelessness from revealing their eating habits to healthcare providers, and since emergency-room personnel frequently misdiagnose symptoms of foodborne illness as conditions related to substance abuse and intoxication, these individuals often do not get the treatment they need.
Food poisoning is an illness that can affect anyone, and Street Medicine Detroit would like to offer some tips to help you stay healthy this season. The fastest way to reduce your risk is with these four steps: clean, cook, chill, and separate.
Clean: Wash your hands with warm, soapy water for at least 30 seconds before preparing or eating food and after using the bathroom, handling pets, and changing diapers. Wash counter tops, utensils and cutting boards before preparing the food and after preparing each raw meat. If possible, use a plastic or non-porous cutting board that won’t trap bacteria.
Cook: Cook meats at high temperatures. Fish should be opaque and flake easily with a fork, and no part of the egg should be runny. When microwaving or reheating food, rotate and stir occasionally to ensure that there are no cold spots.
Chill: Perishable foods must be refrigerated within two hours—do not leave food out for hours for people to nibble. When defrosting, use a refrigerator, microwave, or running water—never leave it on the countertop to thaw for hours! Try not to pack your refrigerator; circulation of cool air keeps the food safe.
Separate: Separate raw meats, poultry, and seafood from other foods both in the shopping cart and when preparing food. Avoid eating off or placing cooked foods on a plate that has previously held raw meat.
Remember: if you come down with food poisoning, drink plenty of clean water to stay hydrated. See a physician when needed, and be honest and thorough about what you ate. And at the end of the day, be cautious about the potato salad!