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Each year, 1 in 6 Americans gets sick from eating contaminated foods and beverages and the latest E. coli outbreak linked to a chain restaurant on the West Coast has people questioning the safety of their food. While the American food supply is among the safest in the world, the Centers for Disease Control estimate that 48 million cases of foodborne illness occur annually, resulting in about 3,000 deaths.

Thanks to new epidemiology and gene sequencing tools, when there is a foodborne illness outbreak we are able to quickly track down the source. You can get sick from eating food you prepare yourself, or from eating at a restaurant. You can get sick from animal and plant products, as well as chemicals or toxins in your food. Most infections are caused by bacteria, viruses and parasites. There are many different microbes and pathogens that cause sickness, so there is no one set of symptoms to diagnose foodborne illness — but common symptoms include nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps and diarrhea. These symptoms can range from mild discomfort to very serious, life-threatening illness and can occur anywhere from a few hours after eating the food to a few days later.

To protect yourself, keep these tips in mind when preparing food at home:

  • Always wash your hands before handling food.
  • Cook food thoroughly. Since most microbes are killed by heat, make sure to cook your food to an internal temperature above 160° F.
  • Wash all your produce. While you can’t eliminate bacteria without cooking, you can reduce it, which might prevent you from ever getting sick.
  • Say no to raw animal products. Raw foods of animal origins – such as raw eggs, meat and shellfish — are most likely to be contaminated.

If you suspect you have a foodborne illness, see your doctor. He or she can test to confirm if an infection is present. If so, the information gets reported to local health department officials who aid in tracking the source of the contamination so others do not get sick.

When dinning out, it’s the responsibility of the cooks and food handlers to ensure the safety of your food. You can check the restaurant’s health inspection score online at

If you take home leftovers, make sure they are refrigerated within an hour. Leftovers should be eaten within 3 to 4 days.


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