How to Avoid Food Poisoning

By Sarah Frankl

From PHN Issue 36, Spring 2018

Foodborne illnesses can be painful and serious. Symptoms can include vomiting, diarrhea, fever and aches. Even if you eat bad food and end up vomiting (or having diarrhea) later in the day, some of the microbes that made the food bad can stay in the gut and continue to cause health problems. Although food poisoning symptoms usually last a few days, some foodborne illnesses can cause more serious health issues that can last for longer.

People in prison must be extra careful. Incarcerated people are 6.4 times more likely to suffer from a foodborne illness than the general U.S. population. Said another way, 20% of foodborne illnesses within the United States occur within the prison system, even though the incarcerated population makes up less than 1% of the U.S. population. Not having direct control over your food and its preparation makes preventing illness hard. However, there are some small things that you can do that will reduce your chances of getting a foodborne illness.

First and foremost is hand washing. Hands should be washed early and often. Times at which hands absolutely must be washed are before eating, before preparing food, before touching raw meat, after touching raw meat, and after going to the bathroom.

People working in the kitchen must make sure to wash all equipment and utensils involved in both the eating of food and the preparation of food with warm water and soap. If a dish, pan, cutting board, or counter space is used for the preparation of raw meat, it is very important that it gets washed afterwards. Indeed, it is meat that is most generally the culprit in terms of food poisoning.

So, if you ever are worried about a meal — say you are in the last wave to enter the dining hall and the air conditioning has broken…if there is a vegetarian option available, it is a good idea to pick the vegetarian option! The most common cause of foodborne illness outbreaks in prisons is food, particularly meat, being left out at room temperature for longer than is safe.

Additionally, if you are storing food in your cell, try to not store meat, at least not for more than two hours. Meat is the first food to go bad if kept at room temperature. Other foods to avoid keeping at room temperature are potato salad (or really anything containing mayonnaise) and rice. In the winter, food can be kept cold best on the windowsill. In the summer, food can be kept most cold in a bin where clothes are stored, away from light and heat. If there is no cool area in your cell, unfortunately, it is unsafe to keep any food that you would generally put in the refrigerator.

If you work in food prep and are sick, it is much better to skip your shift then to go to work sick and touch food that will go to many others. Even if you wash your hands multiple times and wear gloves, there is no place for an ill person to be in a kitchen. Here is some other simple kitchen advice — it is up to kitchen workers to make sure food is heated properly. If something is supposed to reach a boil, even something already pre-cooked like a hotdog, food workers must make sure it gets to that boil. If leftovers are supposed to be reheated, they need to get to a point where they are steaming.

If you do get sick from food, it’s important to make sure you drink enough water, if you can keep it down. Imodium, ginger ale, and eating a bland diet — like bread or rice — may help. Ibuprofen can help if you have aches.

There are a few bad illnesses that can result from food poisoning in rare cases. One of these is Guillain-Barré syndrome, which is a rapid onset muscle-weakness disease in which your peripheral nerves get damaged. It occurs, very infrequently, about ten days to two weeks after a food poisoning bout. The symptoms begin with changes in sensation and pain in hands and feet. If left untreated, it can result in paralysis. Therefore, it is important to seek immediate treatment if you start to notice feeling any of the above symptoms. Another illness that can result from a specific type of food poisoning — salmonella — is typhoid. This can happen anywhere from six to 30 days after exposure, and results in issues including fever, headaches, and rash. Again, it is important to seek treatment if you start to feel ill within a month after a bout of food poisoning, and remember to tell whoever sees you that you did previously experience food poisoning.

Overall, food safety may sound a little silly, if not obvious. But, try to make a simple activity, like hand washing, into a habit. Done on a daily basis, these precautions will drastically reduce the chances that you will get ill. Unfortunately, it only takes one bad piece of food to make you sick, so these practices should be done all the time.   

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