Billions of people consume tons of food across the planet – at restaurants, at home, at school, at work, or on the road. As we consume this food, we also ingest microorganisms (germs) that intend to do us in. Not that they’re consciously out there looking for us; they just don’t know any better.
Our bodies fight these bacteria up to a point. When food is cooked, prepared, and served safely, some germs might slip through, but they will be so few – in number or potential power to make us sick – that most people’s immune systems can meet the challenge, isolating and destroying the germs as quickly as they can.
Sometimes the challenge is so mild we don’t even realize it’s caused by food. The Center for Disease Control projects that 75 million people get sick each year from something they eat. However, because our bodies are such great fighters, we often don’t even feel very ill! We might have an upset to our innards with some vomiting or diarrhea. Or we might feel headachy, queasy, or just plain “icky.” And, if we do go to the doctor, it might be misdiagnosed as the common flu or “bug” going around; as long as we get better, we don’t really worry about it.
The answer is complex. It starts with who you are, and what has happened to the food.
All germs are not created equal. Many are a nuisance; some are dangerous; a few are toxic. A healthy person may succumb to some of these villains despite what a hard-fighting immune system can do. Some toxins in mishandled fish or shellfish, for example, can kill a strong, healthy body in a matter of hours.
In addition, restaurant terminology describes a high-risk group of individuals – people more apt to contract a food borne illness:
But how can a child be high risk? Did you ever watch children, especially babies and toddlers? They put EVERYTHING (and I mean EVERYTHING) in their mouths! How come they aren’t dying left and right? I’ve seen my kids “accidentally” eat sand, dirt, food on the ground, and fries that they find under my car seat, without getting sick! The fact is that kids (and adults) do consume germs and viruses every day. And their bodies, thankfully, adapt.
First, because sometimes our bodies, especially if we’re in a high risk group, can’t always fight the germs fast enough. This can come from the immune system’s being diverted to other priorities, like fighting a common cold at the time that we ingest salmonella. The salmonella gains a foothold and starts to beat us up in addition to the cold germs that are already there.
Second, as we have improved our food safety preparedness (see the history of food safety by clicking here), we have learned that germs adapt, too. For instance, E-coli burst onto the scene in the 1980s; we had not seen it before in the form that was a risk to us, although we have learned more and more about it since then. Norovirus is often mistaken as the common flu; actually, it's a distant cousin. It's a mutated form of the flu virus, and it came into the spotlight only a few years ago. Science tries to keep up with what the germs are doing and keep ahead of their game.
Third, food borne illnesses cost us, both financially and emotionally. A food borne illness means paying the doctor, the pharmacy, the hospital, and worse. It damages your productivity and it puts stress on your relationships. If it is your child or elderly parent who gets sick, the financial costs remain and the emotional costs may be still higher. It’s wise to know how NOT to play Russian Roulette with your food.
I’m often asked how much money would compensate for the death of a child or parent. I really didn’t understand how to answer until my first child was born. Now I know that NO dollar amount could truly compensate for the faulty death of any human being, and, from a food safety perspective, it is important to understand that if the fuel we put in our bodies or our children’s bodies is tainted, those bodies can shut down!
Anyone can get sick, but if you are a high risk individual, you have a greater chance of something more serious happening. If you aren’t high risk, you aren’t off the hook. If you, your restaurant, your grocer, or anyone else inadvertently mishandles food, you might find yourself at the doctor's office.
In addition, when people do get sick – especially from incorrect handling of food by someone who is responsible for serving it safely – the road to recovery can involve a number of obstacles and challenges. We cover that in our “Should I Call the Health Department?” section.
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To learn more about how and why food spoils, click here. (Be advised, however, that you shouldn’t do this on a full stomach!)