By Peter Curson
October 14, 2004
Most of us have experienced a bout of food poisoning: an episode of stomach pain or upset often associated with diarrhoea and in some cases vomiting. Such encounters are usually inconsequential, of limited duration and rarely do we think to bother our general practitioner with them. Most of us assume it’s something we have eaten or drunk, shrug it off and get on with our lives. Minor bouts of upset stomachs have become so common as to be something we all expect to experience sooner or later, and we rarely question their origin.
Imagine the following scenario:
It’s lunchtime and three customers enter an Australian restaurant. The first eats some meat and has a very severe reaction four days later from a virulent form of salmonella. The second eats chicken and three days later comes down with a bad bout of campylobacteriosis, with diarrhoea, fever and vomiting. The third only eats imported cheese and nearly dies a few days later of meningitis. Far-fetched? Not at all. Food poisoning is rampant in Australia, as it is in all developed countries, and it’s increasing at an alarming rate.
And the problem is not confined to fast foods
Potentially lethal bacteria are turning up daily in a wide variety of foods. According to European surveys, Salmonella now inhabits up to 75 per cent of chickens, Listeria up to 15 per cent of soft cheeses and Yersinia up to 50 per cent of raw milk.
Salmonella has also been found in other products such as fruit juices, bread and even chocolate.
Recent statistics indicate New Zealand holds pride of place in the food poisoning stakes, but Australia is not far behind. In recent years, Campylobacter cases have surged alarmingly. There were more than 14,600 new Campylobacter cases recorded in 2002, as well as more than 7,700 cases of salmonellosis and 3,200 cases of cryptosporidiosis. Critically, these officially notified cases are only the tip of the iceberg because many people with low-level symptoms don’t seek medical attention.
In all probability, between 75 and 100 million people in the United States have an encounter with food poisoning every year. As a result, more Americans suffer from food poisoning annually than from the common cold. In Australia, food-borne pathogens probably cause at least five million cases of gastroenteritis each year.
Why this upsurge in food poisoning?
Much of it stems from the vagaries of our behaviour, particularly our increasing tendency to eat food prepared by someone else, whether in a restaurant, a take-away or pre-prepared food from a supermarket. There seems to be little doubt that the preparation and serving of food has declined in recent years, while standards have become much more lax. How is it, as the New Scientist asked a decade ago, that everyone needs a licence to drive a car, but no one asks a food handler to sit a test in elementary food safety?
At least 40 per cent of reported food poisoning outbreaks probably originate in institutions such as canteens, hotels, cruise liners, international aircraft, aged-care facilities and hospitals.
Additionally, our pursuit of so-called “natural” food has placed us more at risk. Consumer behaviour now demands food with less salt and preservatives. The United Kingdom is a case in point. People used to drive out of towns and cities to buy raw milk at farmyards in the belief it would be “purer” and more “natural” than supermarket or corner store milk.
This resulted in thousands of cases of milk-borne salmonellosis and some deaths.
Moreover, people seem to have forgotten that foods without as much salt or preservatives don’t keep as long as they once did.
It never ceases to amaze me that consumers who spend considerable time reading the labels on supermarket products to ensure they’re purchasing preservative and salt-free products will also purchase a frozen chicken, toss it in the back of the car and go and watch their children play sport on a hot day, then eat the chicken a day or so later and wonder why they have an upset stomach.
In the final analysis, there is probably no such thing as pathogen-free food. However, we do possess the means of better production and safer testing, and we do need to be more vigilant.
Food-borne illness remains one of the largest preventable public health problems in this country. We need to be much more conscious of it and how our everyday behaviour might be placing us at risk.