What you need to know about food poisoning

BY:  HONZA PRCHAL               

The June 8th Wall Street Journal wrote “A mysterious and scattered outbreak of the E. coli bacteria is linked to 14 illnesses and one death, health officials say.” The diseases occurred across six states. No source was identified and officials were not sure how many people were infected. “Until the source of the new outbreak is identified, health officials can offer the public only general advice for avoiding the infection: Cook meat thoroughly. Avoid unpasteurized milk and ciders. And—if you have a diarrhea-like illness—wash your hands thoroughly and do not prepare meals for others.”

We don’t think about it often, but food poisoning remains important. Baltimore founded the first health department in 1798 when cities were deathtraps. Widespread reporting and investigation of food borne illnesses is one reason we don’t think twice about drinking water or food from strangers. We no longer cook our groceries so long that most of their vitamins degrade, we eat rawer food, we pickle and fortify with less alcohol.  That’s good for nutrition, but bad for infectious food poisoning.

Unfortunately, as that article shows, we’ve gotten out of the habit of reporting food poisoning to health departments, making food poisoning more likely. Health Departments rely on reports to find many health risks and catch less than they’d like because few of underreporting. The Centers for Disease Control can only estimate between 6 and 33 million food poisoning cases in the US yearly because so few people report it. That is a problem. Not only might reporting food poisoning prove a good case that could get you compensation, it warns whoever gave it to you to, literally, clean up.

Food poisoning happens in many ways. People “know” they got it and where. Proving that and what they got – many bacteria, plus  viruses, parasites, toxins and even allergens sicken people – is harder than “knowing”. Illness can occur within an hour of eating or days later (a child in the article died a month or two after being infected). Most poisoned but healthy adults miss work and feel lousy but recover in days or weeks so do not report anything. A good case involves proving what happened and who did it to you. Food poisoning can be traced back to a farm, factory or restaurant. Public health departments do that, if you help them. Strong cases are not only for unfortunates who got very ill or died. Several low injury cases together can be as “good” as that. Half a family or high school reunion getting sick and missing work or school adds up to a pretty bad injury, and more victims can turn up during an investigation.

If you get unpleasant stomach issues and/or diarrhea, or even neurological issues (difficulty swallowing, speaking, holding up your head, maintaining an upright posture, confusion, lethargy or even seizures) that you fear were caused by food, you need to check them out for your own health. Had the infections in the article been reported sooner, or by more people, the source might be known (and those injured, compensated). If you think you’ve been poisoned, telling a doctor early can help you recover faster, and helps prove you were ill, but just seeing a doctor may not be enough.

A doctor only diagnoses – makes very good guess at – your illness from your symptoms. We learn what sickened you by testing. If you watch CSI or crime dramas you’ve already guessed how and what they might test (frozen samples of suspect food or something from you). Public Health Departments are well equipped for that, even if a clinic isn’t interested. That’s part their job. You can find health departments online or in the blue page sections of your phone book (those list government agencies). If you’ve gone to anything larger than a small clinic, someone there should direct you to one, and may even arrange for testing. (You can also help by being sure your test results get to public health officials.)

If a health department finds you were poisoned, investigators generally try and track it down by testing suspected disease vectors and interviewing other exposed. That is the heart of a good food poisoning case; the sort of proof that makes news and prompts recalls. Recalls and warnings and investigations make help keep food so safe that our biggest food problem is obesity. Considering how dangerous food and water used to be and how they were because of how had to make it safe, that’s a pretty good place. That is why getting to the health department helps get good legal results and protects the public.

Case experience