A K-State food scientist emphasizes the importance of reporting cases of foodborne illness and provides tips for reducing the risk.
MANHATTAN, Kan. – After eating a meal at a new or one of your favorite restaurants, you immediately don’t feel well. Flu-like symptoms ensue, and understandably, you’re more worried about your achy tummy than calling the restaurant and local health department to report what could be a case of foodborne illness.
All you know is that once you’re feeling well, the first thing you plan to do is talk about your bad experience online. But, hopefully by then no one else will have gotten sick from eating at that same restaurant.
Karen Blakeslee, food scientist for K-State Research and Extension and coordinator of the Rapid Response Center, said many times people who contract a foodborne illness don’t know who or where to go to report their experience. A new study, however, has shown that a social media app is making it easier to track down foodborne illness occurrences.
During a nine-month period, software programs screened about 294,000 reviews of New York City restaurants on business review site Yelp.com for possible cases of foodborne illness from July 2012 to March 2013. The software flagged 893 reviews for evaluation by an epidemiologist, which resulted in the identification of 468 reviews consistent with recent or potentially recent foodborne illness.
However, only 3 percent of the reviews described events that had been reported to health agencies, such as the health department, hospital or doctor. The results of this pilot project, a collaborative venture among the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Columbia University and Yelp, suggested online restaurant reviews might help identify unreported outbreaks of foodborne illness and restaurants with poor food handling practices.
“I think it helped reemphasize the point that if you have illness symptoms, you’re not sure where they came from, and they started happening after you ate something, you need to report that,” Blakeslee said. “It helps not only the health agencies identify foodborne illness sources, but also the restaurants know they were the source. It helps restaurants improve the way they handle food.”
Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates one in six people in the United States, or 48 million, get sick from foodborne illness each year. Of these, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die from their illness.
Identifying and reporting the illness
If you get sick from food, whether from food prepared at home, a church supper or a restaurant, you should report it, she said. Many times, you are not the only person feeling ill. It takes two or more people to declare a foodborne illness outbreak.
For many healthy people, foodborne illness will go away within 24 hours. But those who are young, elderly and are immune-compromised can get severely ill.
Foodborne illness could be hard to pinpoint. Symptoms can start within a few hours after eating, or it could take days. Common symptoms include nausea, diarrhea and vomiting, Blakeslee said. Sometimes a fever, chills and a headache also occur. Other challenges include identifying the problem food, and where and when the food was consumed.
“If you’re experiencing symptoms for more than a day, you need to see a doctor,” she said. “You’re probably getting dehydrated, which is dangerous. If symptoms change, and you start feeling dizzy, have bloody diarrhea or other symptoms, those can help pinpoint specific types of bacteria.”
When people have botulism, for example, one of its specific symptoms is double vision. Blakeslee said if you start experiencing blurriness or dizziness, see a doctor or go to the emergency room as soon as possible.
Foodborne illness will go away depending on how contaminated the food was and how healthy you are, she said. How much you ingested will also dictate how soon the symptoms begin.
“Some bacteria don’t start growing until you ingest them,” Blakeslee said. “That’s what we call a toxin. It’s complicated and not easy to pinpoint.”
“Traditional flu is a contagious respiratory illness that affects the lungs,” she added. “The ‘stomach flu’ is a gastrointestinal problem that causes vomiting, nausea, and diarrhea, and it’s possibly from something you ingested.”
Protecting yourself from foodborne illness
Washing your hands before eating is the best way to protect yourself from foodborne illness, Blakeslee said.
“At home, it’s a very simple task to do before, during and after you’re preparing food,” she said.
Consumers should know that the food itself is sometimes not the culprit, Blakeslee said. The environment could also contribute to foodborne illness. Norovirus, for example, spreads rapidly from person-to-person contact.
More about the online reviews study is available on the CDC’s website. More information about food safety is available online on the Rapid Response Center’s website or K-State Research and Extension’s food safety website.