The Poison of Food


For reasons I’d rather not go into, I decided to do a little research into food poisoning with a seemingly simple question: How does food get poisoned?

It turns out most food-related illnesses can be separated into two types: toxins and infection. The traditional use of the term food poisoning stems from the existence of toxins in food. These toxins come from chemicals and heavy metals in food or from mold growing on food that hasn’t been handled properly. In this sense, the food was poisoned.

However, the more prevalent health issues come from bacterial and viral infections rather than toxic chemicals. The most common food-borne infections are Escherichia coli (E. coli), Salmonella, Norovirus and Listeria. The symptoms from these infections typically last longer than those from toxins and are more easily passed from person to person.

While the incidents of toxins in foods are dropping, bacterial and viral infections appear on the rise in recent years. In the U.S. alone, nearly 50 million people are subject to food-borne infections each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even the so-called “world’s best restaurant” recently gave 70 customers food poisoning.

Rather than continuing to try to contain these infections after the fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently proposed “the most sweeping reforms of food safety laws in more than 70 years” in an effort to prevent contaminations before they start. Unfortunately, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) is not currently funded. The Congressional Budget Office estimates it would cost about $1.4 B in its first five years, including hiring ~2,000 additional food inspectors.

Deborah Blum, the author of The Poisoner’s Handbook, suggests that government legislation probably wouldn’t be effective anyway. In an excellent article on the history of food poisoning, she writes:

We’ve been trying to regulate food poisoning out of existence since Biblical times. We’ve reduced it; we’ve saved countless lives by doing so. But we’ll never really erase it from our history. […] Food, in all its chemical complications and possibilities, remains the most dangerous substance we will ever eat.

If legislation can’t save us from food poison, what should we do? The best advice for protecting yourself boils down to three things: wash your hands, cook your food a little longer, and make sure to keep leftovers cold. And hope the dining establishments you select do the same.

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7 Responses to The Poison of Food

  1. Holly June 2, 2013 at 2:46 pm #

    Having experienced this more than my fair share, I advise you to keep away from hamburgers. It’s one of the worst possible foods for poisoning between the meat, bread, and lettuce. I haven’t had a burger in more than 10 years as a result of my baaaad experience.

  2. Timo Elliott (@timoelliott) June 3, 2013 at 2:07 am #

    One potential technology aid: sensors that detect whether employees are washing their hands correctly. Already deployed in hospitals — can it be long before restaurants do the same, perhaps prompted by lower insurance premiums? Here’s the NY Times article:

  3. clknight225 June 3, 2013 at 5:18 pm #

    Insightful message. You don’t realize it at the time, but you really do need to pay attention. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Betsy Cole June 6, 2013 at 5:46 am #

    I think the real issue can be summed up in your last paragraph: the rise in bacterial and viral food poisoning is connected to people being unsafe with their food. The best thing we can do to prevent it is educate people about food safety.

    I would add to your list, “be aware of cross-contamination.” Don’t use the same knife to cut your chicken and your salad veggies, and always wash counters thoroughly after handling meat.

  5. pauditore June 13, 2013 at 9:55 am #

    Interesting discussion and pontification but you totally forgot the invertebrate side of things and being an invertebrate zoologist expert in my former life, I can tell you that entamoeba (amoebic infections) along with many other parasites wreak havoc globally when it comes to food poisoning. And you didn’t mention campylobacter, which I have had and that is very common about 3M cases a year. I have had it Campy and its very common with chicken and an sprouts and reoccurs. The bottom line is that the GOV can’t manage anything let alone food safety. Next time do more research before you pontificate!


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