The holidays are special times for family and friends. However, nothing ruins these special times like foodborne illness.

Foodborne illnesses affect 48 million people each year, and cause an estimated 3,000 deaths in the United States. More than 250 different foodborne diseases have been identified. Most of these diseases are infections; caused by a variety of bacteria, viruses, and parasites that can be foodborne.

The onset of symptoms may occur within minutes to weeks and often present as flu-like symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or fever. Because the symptoms resemble the flu, many people may not recognize that the illness was caused by harmful bacteria or other pathogens in their food. These illnesses are a common, costly and preventable public health challenge.

We are all at risk of getting a foodborne illness; however some of us are more susceptible than others. Those at greater risk include infants, young children, pregnant women and their unborn babies, elderly adults and people with weakened immune systems (those with HIV, cancer, diabetes, kidney disease and transplant patients). Some of us may become ill after ingesting just a few harmful bacteria, while others of us may ingest thousands before we feel the unpleasant effects. Many of you may be thinking, “How do bacteria get in food?” The answer is simple; it may have already been on your food item when you purchased it. Raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs are not sterile. Neither is fresh produce such as lettuce, tomatoes, sprouts and melons.

Most foodborne illnesses can be prevented with proper cooking or processing to destroy harmful pathogens. And, it is always important that we keep cold food cold and hot food hot. When foods set out for a long period of time, they begin to approach “The Danger Zone,” which is when bacteria multiply most rapidly. The Danger Zone is any temperature between 40 degrees F and 140 degreesF. To avoid falling into this zone, it is important to follow these steps: • Store food in the refrigerator (40F or below) or the freezer (0F or below). • Never thaw a turkey at room temperature. Always use the refrigerator, cold water or a microwave oven. • Ensure that leftovers are cooled quickly, reaching 70 F or below within two hours and 41 F or below within four hours. • Cook all raw beef, pork, lamb and veal to an internal temperature of 160 F as measured with a food thermometer. • Cook all poultry, such as turkey, to a minimum internal temperature of 165 F as measured with a food thermometer. • Maintain hot cooked food at 140 F or above. • When reheating cooked food, reheat to 165F.

If you have a suspected case of foodborne illness, there are a few important steps to follow.

First, preserve the evidence. If a portion of the suspected food is still available, wrap it and freeze it. Be sure to include the food type, date, time consumed and onset of symptoms on the package.

Secondly, seek treatment as necessary. If you are “at risk,” you will need to seek medical care immediately. If symptoms persist or become severe, call you doctor.

Lastly contact your local health department; this is especially important if the food was consumed at a large gathering, restaurant or from another food service establishment.

For further information on foodborne illness prevention and outbreaks, visit contact the Independence Health Department at 816-325-7185.

Information provided by and

Larry Jones, MPH, is the director of the Independence Health Department.