By Babatunde Savage

Very rarely would one turn the pages of the dailies without having to read about one family or certain individuals who have lost their lives because of a particular food they ate.

Shooting Stars Soccer Club fondly known as 3SC players were on October 30 2018, struck down by stomach ache ahead of the match with Bendel Insurance in Benin. The 22 players affected by the stomach ache suspected to have been caused by food poisoning after their dinner. This eventually led to postponing of the match by the Nigeria National League Group B1.

Again in November of the same year, In Kebbi State, Northwest Nigeria, three secondary school girls were suspected to have died of food contaminated with poison at Mega Government Girls Comprehensive Secondary School. The deceased students were suspected to have been contaminated by eating leaves of the food delicacy known in Hausa as (Rama) which was given to them by their parents during the visiting hours. They were said to have feasted on the meal consecutively for three days running before they felt sick which led to their death after being hospitalised.

The question is, what exactly is Food Poisoning? This question is against the backdrop of certain people who have the limited belief that food poisoning occurs when food is deliberately poisoned with the intention of harming the eater. This is not a very holistic way of viewing it. Besides, an individual can be unfortunate to come to an untimely death even after preparing his/ her food. Food poisoning certainly goes beyond that.

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Food poisoning is any illness resulting from the consumption of contaminated food, pathogenic bacteria, viruses, or parasites that contaminate food, as well as chemical or natural toxins such as poisonous mushrooms. Many foodborne illnesses remain poorly understood.

A Professor of Food Science and Technology, Alfred Ihenkuronye, has said that more than 200,000 persons die of food poison in Nigeria annually. Approximately sixty per cent of outbreaks are caused by unknown sources.

Although fingered as a major culprit, the outrageous use of chemicals in preserving foods such as cereals and legumes could definitely cause food poisoning, however, the consumer is usually absolved of the blame since they couldn’t have known what they were consuming. However, the focus of this article will zero on food poisoning arising from bacterial contamination.

No doubt, Bacteria is a leading cause of food poisoning. Bacteria are a common cause of foodborne illness. In a study in the United Kingdom, the following individual bacteria were identified as culprits in Food poisoning cases. Campylobacter jejuni 77.3%, Salmonella 20.9%, Escherichia coli O157: H7 1.4%, and all others less than 0.56%.

Other very common bacterial foodborne pathogens are: Campylobacter jejuni which can lead to secondary Guillain–Barré syndrome and periodontitis

Clostridium perfringens, the “cafeteria germ” Salmonella spp. – its S. Typhimurium infection is caused by consumption of eggs or poultry that are not adequately cooked or by other interactive human-animal pathogens.

Coming closely on the heels of bacterial food poisoning, pathogens are Viruses. In some developed countries, viral infections make up perhaps one-third of cases of food poisoning.

In 2004, it was reported that in the US, more than 57% of cases of food poisoning are as a result of viruses. Foodborne viral infection is usually of intermediate (1–3 days) incubation period, causing illnesses which are self-limited in otherwise healthy individuals; they are similar to the bacterial forms described above.

In this category is the Enterovirus, Hepatitis A, and it is distinguished from other viral causes by its prolonged (2–6 week) incubation period and its ability to spread beyond the stomach and intestines into the liver. It often results in jaundice, or yellowing of the skin, but rarely leads to chronic liver dysfunction. The virus has been found to cause infection due to the consumption of fresh-cut produce which has faecal contamination.

It would, however, seems illogical that a sane person will willfully, or perhaps gleefully, eat any contaminated food, knowing fully well that it would be quite hazardous to their health. Yet, on a daily basis, and in their hundreds, people are falling victim to this problem. On average, quite a number of people can attest to having exhibited the signs of food poisoning at one point in time or the other.

Some of the symptoms usually exhibited are stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, chills and fever which can develop rapidly, within an hour after eating contaminated food, or slowly worsening over days to weeks when they are no longer clearly linked to a particular food. They, however, usually manage to overcome it.

However, for people with a weak or compromised immune system such as the elderly, children or pregnant women, the outcome can be fatal.

What then is responsible? One of the key factors that predispose a person to food poisoning would be the lifestyle. Not everyone is quite hygienic or safety conscious when it comes to making food, and this occurs both in a domestic and commercial setting.

How many people are familiar with the nuances of poisoning bacteria in their food? A very large number of victims probably do not know that E. coli, Salmonella and Campylobacter, which are food bacteria, multiply quickly in warmer temperatures.

For victims of domestic food poisoning, the causes may vary. It could arise from improper storage or handling, or preparation of food storage. In the public- health community, it is believed that regular hand-washing is one of the most effective defences against the spread of foodborne illness.

What then can be done to stem the rising tide of food poisoning in the country? According to Leslie Beck, a registered dietician and the National Director of Nutrition at Body Science Medical,  except in extreme cases, where the food has gone so bad and it is quite obvious (which in most cases would be thrown away) there is no way to tell if a food is contaminated.

You cannot see, smell or taste bacteria that cause food poisoning. The only way to guard against food-borne illnesses is to handle foods safely in the first place. However, she shares certain insights as to what to do to mitigate the occurrence of food poisoning, especially in a domestic setting.

Keep it clean

As a cook, the rule is to wash the hands, for at least 20 seconds. Also, wash all utensils and cooking surfaces with hot soapy water before and after handling food.

It is recommended that one use a disinfectant cleaner or a mixture of bleach and water (1 teaspoon bleach per 3 cups of water) on surfaces to provide added protection against bacteria.

Still, on washing, she also recommends that fresh vegetables and fruits be washed with cool running water to remove dirt and residue. It is, however, important, before cutting, to scrub fruits and vegetables that have firm surfaces or rinds such as carrots, oranges, melons and potatoes. And when tempted not to throw into the bin a bruised or damaged produce, simply cut away the affected areas as they can be a breeding ground for bacteria.

Learn to separate the raw from the cooked

While some are adept to handling this seemingly simple procedure, many victims of food poisoning have infected themselves by carelessly handling the raw and the cooked.

Not learning to separate it can spread cross-contamination of bacteria from food to people, people to food, or from one food to another. It is, therefore, necessary to learn how to separate raw meat, poultry and seafood from other foods in the refrigerator.

Most nutrition experts will suggest that you store in plastic bags or sealed containers on the lowest rack in the fridge to prevent juices from leaking onto other foods.

Also very important is to learn how to use separate cutting boards and utensils for raw meats and vegetables. It is advised that you do not put cooked food in a dish that previously held raw food.

Thaw Safely

Of course, we are in the jet age, and things must be done at the speed of light. Thawing, however, should not be hastily done. Leslie advice is, never defrost food on the kitchen counter at room temperature. Doing so allows bacteria to grow on the food.

So contrary to popular opinion, food should be thawed in the refrigerator. This may not fit the cosmopolitan lifestyle, but if you plan to cook the food right after thawing, you can thaw it in the microwave or a sink of cold water. And you need to replace the water every 30 minutes.

 Cooking out the poisons

We want fast foods, but an over-reliance of poorly prepared foods can quickly be a passport to food poisoning. So, cook food very well and thoroughly and serve immediately after cooking. Meat, especially, needs thorough cooking, and in order to kill the harmful bacteria in meat, cook it properly. Food poisoning bacteria grow quickly on partially cooked food.

Coming on the heels of thorough cooking is the one-hour rule. One fact not to be ignorant of is that disease-causing bacteria multiply rapidly in what is called the danger zone, a temperature range of 4 C (40 F) and 60 C (140 F).

In hot weather (32 C/90 F), do not leave foods sitting out for more than one hour. For temperatures that are not quite as hot, do not keep foods out for longer than two hours.

Food that is left outside too long can look and taste fine but may be teeming with harmful bacteria. When in doubt, throw it out.

Too cold to breed

Refrigerate or freeze prepared food and leftovers within two hours. If cooking ahead of time, divide large portions of hot food into small, shallow containers to ensure safe, rapid cooling. Do not overstuff the fridge. Cold air needs to circulate above and beneath food to keep it properly chilled.

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