HomeHealth12 unexpected ways you can get food poisoning

12 unexpected ways you can get food poisoning

Food safety is a critical concern for everyone, but it becomes even more important as you age. Food poisoning is often associated with raw or undercooked meats and dairy products, but some unexpected foods can also pose a risk. Here are some surprising culprits that could lead to foodborne illnesses, and how to avoid them.

1. Salmonella in poultry, eggs, and greens

Poultry and eggs are common carriers of salmonella, bacteria that can cause severe gastrointestinal distress. The bacteria can infect eggs before the shell forms, so even eggs that appear clean and fresh may be contaminated. Symptoms include stomach cramps, fever, and diarrhoea 12 to 72 hours after exposure. The illness usually lasts four to seven days. 

Always cook eggs until they are firm, and poultry until it reaches an internal temperature of 74°C. Keep raw poultry separate from other foods, and thoroughly wash your hands, utensils, and surfaces after handling.

Salmonella isn’t just found in animal products; outbreaks have been linked to tomatoes, peppers, salad greens, and papaya. Sprouts, too, may harbour salmonella as the warm, humid conditions they are grown in are also perfect for salmonella growth, and they are often eaten raw or lightly cooked.

Wash all produce thoroughly under running water and dry it before storing it in the refrigerator at 4°C.

2. Salmonella and E. coli in minced meat

E. coli, which can cause severe abdominal issues, is often found in the intestines of cattle, and can contaminate beef during processing. Beef mince is especially risky because the bacteria can spread during grinding. Symptoms include intense abdominal cramps, watery diarrhoea, and vomiting. It usually takes a few days after exposure to feel sick and symptoms last around a week. E. coli can be particularly severe in vulnerable individuals.

Raw meat, particularly minced meat, is also susceptible to salmonella contamination. Minced turkey has been linked with several salmonella outbreaks. You usually can’t tell the food is contaminated because it looks and smells normal.

Cook beef mince to at least 71°C and other meats to their recommended temperatures. Prevent cross-contamination by cleaning all surfaces after handling raw meat.

3. E. coli in fresh produce and unpasteurised juice and milk

Pasteurisation is a process that uses heat to kill bacteria. Most juices sold in grocery stores are pasteurised, so they’re safe to drink. But be careful with juices and ciders sold at farms, stands, or health food stores, as they might not be pasteurised and could contain E. coli. The bacteria can also get into raw milk if the milking equipment isn’t clean or if the cows’ udders are dirty or infected.

Improperly fertilised or irrigated produce can also be a source of E. coli, particularly leafy greens. So, make sure to wash leafy greens individually and cook vegetables properly to kill any lingering bacteria.

4. Botulism in tinned foods

Botulism is a serious illness caused by improperly tinned or preserved foods. Foods tinned at home are especially at risk, as well as honey, cured meats, and fermented, smoked, or salted fish. 

Throw away bulging cans, leaking jars, or foul-smelling preserved foods. It’s also best to discard contents if liquid spurts out upon opening.

5. Clostridium perfringens in large batches of food 

C. perfringens is a type of bacteria that causes cramps and diarrhoea, usually lasting less than 24 hours. These bacteria thrive in foods such as stews and gravies that are kept warm for extended periods.

To avoid this, serve food hot right after cooking and promptly refrigerate leftovers.

6. Staph contamination in prepared foods

Staph infections can spread through food when it’s handled by someone with a skin infection. Symptoms come on quickly, in as little as 30 minutes, and include vomiting, cramps, and diarrhoea. They come on so quickly because they’re caused by a pre-formed toxin rather than the bacteria. The illness usually runs its course in one to three days.

7. Campylobacter in undercooked poultry 

Just one drop of raw chicken juice can cause campylobacter illness, which is one of the most common causes of bacterial gastroenteritis in Australia. Symptoms can include fever, cramps, watery or often bloody diarrhoea, and vomiting

Ensure you cook poultry to at least 74°C and avoid cross-contamination. Campylobacter can also be carried on your hands, so wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water before eating. 

Read more: Why you shouldn’t wash raw chicken before cooking it

8. Norovirus from contaminated hands

Norovirus is a highly contagious virus that causes gastroenteritis. It’s often referred to as the stomach flu because it commonly leads to symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhoea, nausea, and stomach cramps. Norovirus can spread easily through contaminated food or water, close contact with infected individuals, or touching contaminated surfaces and then putting your hands in your mouth. 

Symptoms usually last for a few days and most people recover without complications, but it can be more serious for young children, elderly individuals, and those with weakened immune systems.

Fish and seafood

You also need to take care when it comes to fish and seafood.

9. Vibrio vulnificus in raw shellfish 

These bacteria are found in warm seawater and can contaminate shellfish, particularly oysters. Vibrio vulnificus usually causes the same gastrointestinal symptoms as many other foodborne illnesses, but in people with weakened immune systems, it can develop into a life-threatening blood infection.

Only consume shellfish that has been thoroughly cooked and discard any that do not open during cooking.

10. Paralytic shellfish poisoning

Paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) is a serious condition caused by toxins produced by certain algae. When these algae bloom, the toxins can contaminate shellfish.

Symptoms of PSP can be severe, including tingling lips and tongue, numbness, difficulty breathing, and even paralysis. In extreme cases, death can occur within 30 minutes of exposure. Thankfully, PSP is extremely rare, and shellfish are regularly tested for toxins before they reach the market. 

Always ensure your shellfish comes from a reputable source to minimise the risk.

11. Scombroid from fresh tuna

Scombroid poisoning can occur when eating fish such as tuna, mackerel, amberjack, and mahi-mahi that have started to spoil. This isn’t your typical food poisoning; it’s more like an allergic reaction. Spoilage bacteria produce histamines in the fish, leading to symptoms such as a burning sensation in the mouth, an itchy rash, dizziness, headaches, and diarrhoea. 

These symptoms usually subside within a few hours, and antihistamines can alleviate them. To avoid scombroid, purchase fish from trusted suppliers and consume it while it’s fresh.

12. Ciguatera poisoning from fish

Ciguatera poisoning comes from eating reef fish such as grouper or snapper that have ingested certain types of sea algae. Symptoms can appear within six hours and include a mix of gastrointestinal and neurological effects, such as tingling in the extremities, headaches, and even temperature reversal, where cold objects feel hot and vice versa. 

There’s no cure for ciguatera, and while symptoms typically fade over time, they can sometimes persist for years. To prevent ciguatera, be cautious about where your reef fish come from and consider avoiding fish from regions known for ciguatera outbreaks.

When to see your doctor

Most foodborne illnesses resolve on their own, but you should call the doctor if you have:

  • a high fever
  • bloody stools
  • prolonged vomiting
  • diarrhoea lasting more than three days
  • signs of dehydration such as dry mouth, dizziness, or reduced urination. 

By being aware of these common food safety mistakes and following the safety tips provided, you can significantly reduce your risk of food poisoning. Remember, it’s always better to err on the side of caution when it comes to food preparation and storage. Keep your kitchen clean, cook your food well, and keep perishables properly refrigerated.

Were you aware of these unusual sources of food poisoning? Let us know in the comment section below.

Also read: Everything you need to know before reheating food

Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

Ellie Baxter
Ellie Baxter
Writer and editor with interests in travel, health, wellbeing and food. Has knowledge of marketing psychology, social media management and is a keen observer and commentator on issues facing older Australians.
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