Food Handling: Don’t Trust Trial and Error to Prevent Illness

Dr.JaccarinoDr. Frederick Jaccarino, M.D.
Ever since the evolution of early hunter-gatherers there has been a need and desire to preserve food supplies. Those earlier Homo sapiens recognized that stockpiling some roots and berries would come in handy when the ready supply of fresh meat was unavailable.
And so, just as our collective wisdom arose from lore passed orally from generation to generation, so too food acquisition, preparation, and safe handling certainly arose through trial and error. Perhaps only a few cavemen had to get severe belly pain after eating a three-day old elk carcass before the whole tribe for generations to come would shun the grisly leftovers.
However, the tribes who killed their elk in winter might also note that after three days in the snow, the elk still tasted ok, and there were no consequences for their intestines. Back then, the tribes were still migratory enough that knowledge and lore could be topics worth discussing over the campfire. They didn’t really have a lot of issues other than survival to discuss; there were no taxes, Obamacare, or Miley Cyruses to captivate their attention.
Entering this century, we benefit from the refined knowledge of food production and food safety developed from those many centuries of trial and error, careful observation, and scientific experimentation. Yet still, people continue to become ill due to the food they consume! The classic example is staph bacteria growth on the food item; it produces a toxin that causes nausea about one to six hours after the meal – most victims recover within a day. Prevention involves sanitary handling (clean hands, no contact with the food by people with skin infections, keeping hot food hot and cold food cold, and avoiding that three-day old elk meat. Other bacteria and parasites cause illness through directly infecting you, rather than by indirect toxins.
Middle Eastern cultures grew to shun pork meat; a serious illness called trichinosis results from eating undercooked pork.
Shellfish from warm waters may transfer a cholera-causing bacteria; the resulting diarrhea is massive and shellfish from our colder waters are more likely to cause hepatitis A, which is no picnic either.
The takeaway lessons are that food can make you sick. Decrease your own risks by focusing on sanitation in both preparation and storage. Get any leftovers into refrigeration ASAP, and heed expiration and use-by dates, and don’t rely on the “smell test” to assess the safety of a food.
Even dogs make that mistake!