‘Tis the season of family, friends, and food-centred festivities - braais, picnics, year-end functions, weddings, picnics, and pitstops.
The heat of summer in South Africa means that food is more sensitive and quicker to spoil, bringing about bugs, flies, and bacteria, and resulting in food poisoning or foodborne illnesses.
Food poisoning is a growing global crisis all year round, but in the hot weather there is an increased risk, which can turn food enjoyment into a toxic environment in your digestive system (caused by infectious bacteria, viruses, parasites, or chemical substances entering the body through contaminated food).
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), an estimated 600 million - almost 1 in 10 - people around the world fall ill after eating contaminated food, and 420 000 die each year, resulting in the loss of 33 million healthy life years. The Food Advisory Consumer Service (FACS) states that food poisoning is a notifiable disease in South Africa, but that the surveillance system is not effective, as only a few hundred cases a year are reported, whereas the incidences are more likely to be in the region of hundreds of thousands.
Causes of Food Poisoning
The normal causes of food poisoning are bacteria and viruses. The usual offenders are:
- Salmonella found in eggs, poultry, and other products of animal origin
- Campylobacter bacteria, caused by raw milk, raw and undercooked poultry, and drinking water
- E-coli, which is associated with unpasteurised milk, undercooked meat, and contaminated fresh fruit and veg
- Listeria, which can occur in unpasteurised dairy products and some ready-to-eat foods and grow at refrigeration temperatures
- The Norovirus, a common cause of food infections
Symptoms of Food Poisoning
Both the virus and bacteria cause symptoms of nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain. Diarrhea and vomiting cause a loss of electrolytes, which can lead to further complications in the cardiovascular system and affect the heart and brain. Food poisoning can develop rapidly - within six hours – and worsen over a few days. The symptoms can last from a few hours up to eight weeks, in some cases. The impact can range from mild to severe, sometimes leading to long-lasting disability and death.
A Personal Experience
My own recent encounter with food poisoning stole about four weeks of my well-being and productivity. I ate some prepared chicken from a food establishment, which left me with a severe infection that I thought would last for a day or two. In spite of the interventions I took, which included activated charcoal to remove the toxins, ginger for the nausea, kefir for the probiotic replenishment, electrolytes for rehydration, and avoiding irritants, the symptoms of nausea, diarrhea, gas, and abdominal pain lingered longer than expected. A lack of appetite and fear of eating is one of the symptoms, and left me viewing food as the enemy.
As it turns out, nutrition was in fact the antidote. I switched to healing foods, including bone broth and soothing peppermint tea. I also added a potent treatment probiotic - saccharomyces boulardii, which can be great for combatting stomach upset, stimulating the immune system, and providing antimicrobial properties.
Tips for Preventing Food Poisoning
The last thing you want is for you or your family to spend the whole holiday down with food poisoning. Here are a few tips for storing, preparing, and cooking your food safely so you don’t let a foodborne illness dampen the festive spirit:
Your risk of food poisoning increases with food left out at room temperature, rather than stored in the fridge. Refrigerate food within an hour of purchase (especially fish and dairy), and make sure that the temperature of the fridge is below 5 °C. Acquaint yourself with your fridge’s settings, and keep raw meat in the coldest section (usually at the bottom). Leftovers should be refrigerated at 4°C or colder, within two hours after preparation.
Cook your food thoroughly. It’s crucial to cook meat or seafood properly and to keep raw meat, fish, and seafood away from other food being served. The rule of thumb is to wash and sanitise your hands consistently, and to keep cooking surfaces and utensils clean. We are emerging from the pandemic era; this is common practice for all. Undercooked or raw meat can contain harmful germs like campylobacter, salmonella, and E-coli. If you are working with large portions of meat and aren’t sure whether meat is cooked through, a thermometer may come in handy to check the temperature.
Arrange for delivery when someone is at home, so that perishable foods can be quickly stored in the refrigerator or freezer instead of being left outside.
Delivered restaurant meals should be eaten right away or refrigerated if they contain a cooked or cold product such as a salad of freshly cut fruit. If you have leftovers or are saving a hot food delivery for later, refrigerate within an hour, and reheat throughout before eating. Make sure you know how long your leftovers will keep in the fridge.
Fruit and Veg
Meat and dairy are always seen as the culprits, but fruit and vegetables are guilty of a number of food poisoning outbreaks, too - particularly lettuce, spinach, cabbage, celery, bell peppers, and tomatoes. Leafy greens are also susceptible to contamination with harmful bacteria such as E. coli, salmonella, and listeria. Be sure to rinse all your fresh produce thoroughly, especially if you intend to eat it raw.
When handling raw meat, chicken, and seafood, ensure that it is separated from other food, refrigerate it before cooking or braaing, and ensure that the juices do not touch other food, utensils, or surfaces. Once cooked, keep the hot food hot, and the cold food cold. Refrigerate the leftovers within two hours and - when reheating - ensure that the meat is warmed right through.
Rice food poisoning is also prevalent, and can be serious. It is ideal to serve rice as soon as you have cooked it. For storage, it must be cooled quickly, stored in the fridge, and reheated - preferably within a day. If frozen, it can be much longer, but ensure that it is reheated correctly and piping hot. It is safe to eat the rice cold, as long as it has been cooled and stored correctly. Do not leave reheated rice sitting on the counter, and do not reheat more than once. Take care when having rice or risotto at buffets, which can be breeding grounds for food poisoning.
While it is imperative to consult your healthcare provider, there are a few go-to at-home solutions that could help…
- Probiotics to heal and restore your gut microbiome
- Bone broth to replenish essential minerals
- Activated charcoal to draw out toxins
- Ginger, cinnamon & turmeric to help alleviate nausea or an upset stomach
- Garlic to improve digestion and help lower inflammation
- Apple cider vinegar to help eliminate bugs
- Coconut water to replenish electrolytes and rehydrate
- Peppermint tea to soothe an upset stomach
Enjoy the season, practise food safety daily, and work with your food to safeguard your digestive system.