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The Ultimate Guide to Dangerous Restaurant Food Poisoning Pathogens

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 48 million Americans become ill, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die each year from food poisoning.

Bacteria, viruses, and parasites are the primary sources of most reported food poisoning cases, typically the result of improper food
handling. Small amounts of bacteria are not harmful to most healthy adults because of the human body’s natural immunities that successfully
fight them off. However, when harmful bacteria and other foreign pathogens multiply and spread, your restaurant customers can easily become ill. The most common way that this occurs is when food safety protocol is not followed and food is mishandled. Food products that are contaminated oftentimes do not have any indicators through look, taste, or smell that the food is unsafe to consume. Frequently contaminated food products are identified only after symptoms of food poisoning appear in customers. Food contamination is difficult to pinpoint because food poisoning symptoms may develop as quickly as 30 minutes or several days after eating the compromised food.

The CDC has identified eight known pathogens (bacteria, viruses and parasites) that account for most foodborne illness in restaurants.

The Big Eight Most Common Pathogens

1. Salmonella

Salmonella is a group of bacteria that causes the infection salmonellosis. One of the most common bacteria, it causes diarrhea and vomiting. Salmonella is the most common cause of foodborne-related hospitalizations and deaths. Pregnant women, aging adults, young children and those with immune deficiencies are the most at-risk after being exposed to salmonella. Salmonella is bacteria that lives in the intestinal tract of humans and animals. Salmonella is easily spread without the use of proper hygiene and proper food safety cooking methods.

Food poisoning from salmonella can show symptoms anywhere from 12 hours to a full week later.

Source: Salmonellosis can be contracted by consuming raw and undercooked eggs, undercooked poultry and meat, contaminated fruits and vegetables and through unpasteurized dairy products. In restaurants, it can be spread by restaurant employees who have no washed their hands after using the bathroom or handling money.

Prevention: Proper cook time and temps, especially of foods such as eggs, poultry, and ground beef can help to prevent salmonella infection. Taking care to wash raw fruit and vegetables before peeling, cutting or eating can reduce the chance of spreading
salmonella. Proper and frequent hand washing, especially after using the bathroom or handling raw meat or poultry is essential to minimize salmonella risk. Restaurant employees should always sanitize kitchen surfaces and avoid cross-contamination.

2. Clostridium perfringens

Clostridium perfringens is also known as C. perfringens and is very common, in small amounts, in our environment. It can multiply very quickly under poor food safety conditions and put restaurant customers at risk. Infants, young children, and aging adults are most at risk for this type of food poisoning.

Symptoms typically develop between 6 and 24 hours after ingestion.

Source: Food poisoning usually occurs when a customer eats foods contaminated with large numbers of this bacteria. While small quantities may not be harmful, large quantities can produce enough toxin to cause severe abdominal cramping and diarrhea. C. perfringens has been referred to as the “buffet germ” because it grows very fast in large portions of food that are left to sit at room temperature. Food products such as casseroles, mac and cheese, stews, and gravy that are permitted to sit in the temperature danger zones are common sources of this pathogen. When food isn’t properly cooked, cooled, or reheated and maintained at the appropriate temperature, live bacteria will quickly multiply and put your customers at risk.

Prevention: Cook food thoroughly and at the proper food safety temperature. Prevent prepared food from entering the temperature danger zones. When storing prepared foods, follow food safety guidelines for cooling and reheating. Reheated food product should always reach an internal temperature of 165°F or higher before serving to prevent the growth of C. perfringens.

3. Campylobacter

Campylobacter commonly reveals itself by causing diarrhea in customers. Most cases of campylobacteriosis occur after eating raw or undercooked poultry and meat or from cross-contamination by these items. Freezing reduces the number of Campylobacter bacteria found in raw meat, but does not kill the bacteria completely. As with all other bacteria prevention, proper heating of foods is imperative. Campylobacteriosis most commonly affects infants and young children.

Food poisoning from campylobacter can show symptoms anywhere from 12 hours to a full week later.

Source: Consuming raw and undercooked poultry and other meats, unpasteurized dairy products and untreated water or contaminated produce is the most common cause of food poisoning from campylobacter.

Prevention: Cook all foods thoroughly and at the proper food safety temperature. Prevent cross-contamination by designating separate cutting boards for employees to use when handling raw and cooked foods. Avoid serving unpasteurized milk or untreated water. Ensure that employees comply with hand washing procedures. Wash raw fruits and vegetables before peeling, cutting and eating.

4. Staphylococcus aureus

Staphylococcus aureus (staph) is found on the skin, throats, and in the nostrils of healthy people and animals. It is a natural part of our bodies and will not cause food poisoning until it is transmitted to food products where it multiplies to unhealthy levels, producing harmful toxins. Staph symptoms include nausea, stomach cramps, vomiting or diarrhea. Staph toxins are heat resistant and are immune to cooking. Anyone can develop a staph infection but certain groups of people, including people with chronic conditions such as diabetes, cancer, vascular disease, eczema and lung disease, are at higher risk of serious illness.

Food poisoning from staph can show symptoms anywhere from 30 minutes to 8 hours after ingestion.

Source: The staph bacteria may be found in unpasteurized dairy products and unusually salty foods such as processed meats. Foods that are handled more than usual and require little to no cooking are at the highest risk:

  • Salads: ham, egg, tuna, chicken, potato, macaroni
  • Baked products: cream-filled pastries, cream pies, chocolate éclairs
  • Sandwiches
  • Fruit Bouquets: any type of decorative arrangement of fruits or vegetables

Prevention: Practicing food safety hand washing standards with soap and water will minimize risk of spreading staph to customers. Never prepare or serve food with a nose or eye infection or with open wounds or skin infections. Maintain a clean kitchen area.

5. E. coli O157:H7

Escherichia coli, frequently referred to simply as E. coli, are a large and dangerous group of bacteria. While most strains of E. coli are harmless, a few strands can cause customers to become severely ill. The most common food poisoning strain, E. Coli O157:H7 (STEC) can result in extremely severe symptoms.

Food poisoning from E. coli can show symptoms anywhere from 1 to 10 days following exposure.

Source: E. coli may infect a customer who eats raw or undercooked ground beef or consumes unpasteurized dairy products.

Prevention: It is imperative to maintain food safety hand washing standards, especially when handling uncooked meat (especially ground meat) and poultry. Avoid serving unpasteurized dairy products, juices or ciders to reduce risk. Maintain clean cooking surfaces and prevent cross-contamination.

6. Listeria monocytogenes

Restaurant patrons who consume food contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes bacteria may become infected and contract listeriosis. Listeriosis is a serious food poisoning infection that affects high risk for food poisoning individuals such as aging adults, pregnant women, young children and people with immune deficiency. Listeria has the ability to grow at refrigerator temperatures, unlike most other bacteria.

People who have developed listeria food poisoning report symptoms starting 1 to 4 weeks after eating contaminated food.

Source: Listeria is found in refrigerated, processed foods such as hot dogs and deli meats. It is also common in unpasteurized dairy products, raw sprouts, raw and undercooked meat, poultry and seafood.

Prevention: Restaurants that consistently cook all foods to proper food safety temperatures and reheat precooked foods to 165°F minimize their risk of spreading Listeria to their customers. Washing raw fruits and vegetables before peeling, cutting or eating and separating uncooked meats and poultry from foods that are cooked also reduces Listeria contamination. Washing hands thoroughly and frequently, store foods safely, and maintaining clean prep areas also reduce the risk and spread of Listeria.

7. Norovirus

Norovirus is one of the leading causes of food poisoning ( just ask Chipotle) and often results in customers suffering from symptoms similar
to stomach flu. Stomach cramping, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea are the most common symptoms of Norovirus. Norovirus spreads easily through
contact with an infected employee. Foods, drinks, and any surface is at risk of becoming contaminated with the Norovirus. Anyone is at risk of becoming ill from Norovirus, but the pathogen is especially serious for young children and aging adults.

A person typically develops symptoms of Norovirus 12 to 48 hours after ingestion.

Source: Fresh produce, shellfish, ice, fruit and processed foods are common sources of Norovirus. Salads, sandwiches, and baked goods that have been prepared by someone who is infected are commonly reported sources of Norovirus.

Prevention: Maintain accurate and detailed sick employee checklists and logs to prevent the spread of Norovirus. Following strict food safety hand washing protocols with soap and water for at least 20 seconds minimizes risk. Maintain the cleanliness of foods and utensils and wash all cutting boards, knives, kitchen surface areas, table linens, cloth napkins after every use.

8. Toxoplasma gondii

Toxoplasma is the parasite that causes toxoplasmosis, which is a dangerous disease that can result in severe health problems for high
food poison risk individuals including pregnant women, infants, aging adults and people with immune weakness. Symptoms are similar to flu symptoms and common complaints include swollen lymph glands, muscle aches and pain that can last for several months. Other reported symptoms are reduced or blurred vision or eye pain, redness, or chronic tearing.

Symptoms are usually noticed between 5 and 23 days following the infection.

Source: Eating undercooked, contaminated meat or using utensils or cutting boards that have had contact with raw meat is
the most common cause of Toxoplasma in restaurants. Pregnant mothers can spread Toxoplasma to unborn infants if infected before or while pregnant.

Prevention: Following food safety temperature protocol is essential for reducing the risk of infecting a customer with Toxoplasma. Food thermometers should be used to ensure food has reached a safe temperature and detailed food temp logging should be practiced. Other ways to avoid the spread of Toxoplasma is to freeze meat properly, wash fruits and vegetables before peeling, cutting and eating, and avoid unpasteurized dairy products. Maintaining clean cutting boards and prep stations and following hand washing protocol also reduces risk.

Practicing safe food handling and adhering to food temperature standards are the most important ways to protect your restaurant from food poisoning complaints. Using an automated food safety platform allows restaurant owners to track and report food temperatures and protect their restaurants from the devastating effects of food poisoning complaints.

Everyone in the restaurant industry is dealing with high employee turnover rates.

Everyone in the restaurant industry is dealing with high employee turnover rates. Some may be facing this problem more than others
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