Food poisoning is an acute illness brought on by the consumption of contaminated food. The most common causes of food poisoning are microbiological contamination and chemical contamination. This article focuses on microbiological contamination because of recent events. It is obvious that most people eat outside of their homes, especially in the cities and big towns due to the pressures that come with working with corporate organisations. Employees in supermarkets cannot be left out of rush hours, since they have to open very early to offer breakfast options to career men and women, students and even schoolchildren. Knowledge of the causes of food poisoning is therefore imperative to prevent illness.
In the past two weeks, a colleague and a friend have gone down with food poisoning (medically diagnosed), and I believe that will be the tip of the iceberg. My colleague had eaten boiled yam and kontonmire stew prepared by an eatery. Four hours after eating the meal, he started throwing up and had severe diarrhea. She went to see a doctor and the diagnosis pointed to food poisoning.
A few days later, another friend was caught in the same web after consuming street food. The symptoms were similar; vomiting and diarrhea. My colleague had gone pale, lost a lot of weight and could hardly walk. These two cases which happened just 4 days apart would probably be just two of the many cases reported at various hospitals and clinics which do not come up for public discourse.
In the second food poisoning case above, the person felt dizzy and collapsed in the process and had to be rushed to hospital. Food poisoning should be a national discussion due to the proliferation of eateries in the country.
Exotoxins and Endotoxins
The incubation or onset period for most food poisoning organisms may vary from as early as 60 minutes to as long as 72 hours. Incubation or onset period is simply the time between eating the contaminated food and showing the first signs of illness. The onset of illness depends on whether the toxin involved is an exotoxin or an endotoxin. Toxins are poisonous substances produced by living bacteria (pathogens) as a result of metabolic activities that takes place within them.
There are two types of these toxins; exotoxins and endotoxins. Exotoxins are secreted or released into the food environment before consumption. Endotoxins are however produced and ‘stored’ in the cell walls of these pathogens and released only during the breakage of these cells, normally in the stomach. Hence, the incubation period for exotoxins are much shorter than that of endotoxins. A pathogen such as Staphylococcus aureus produces exotoxins, hence the onset of illness is much shorter. Another organism that is very common with food poisoning is Salmonella sp. which produces endotoxins, hence onset of illness could range between 6 to 72 hours.
Symptoms of food poisoning
It is not too difficult to recognise the symptoms of food poisoning because of the shorter incubation periods compared to a food-borne disease. Although there are specific symptoms in relation to specific food pathogens, there are general symptoms such as vomiting, nausea and diarrhea. For specific food pathogens such as S. aureus poisoning, symptoms normally include abdominal pain, vomiting (main symptom), prostration and diarrhea. In the case of Salmonella sp. symptoms include abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting and fever.
Preventing food poisoning
The most effective way of avoiding food poisoning is prevention. Everyone should have a high sense of personal hygiene. According to the WHO: “Hygiene refers to conditions and practices that help to maintain health and prevent the spread of diseases”. Personal hygiene refers to maintaining the body’s cleanliness and health. S. aureus poisoning is an indicator of poor personal hygiene because this organism is found on the human body; nose, skin surface, boils etc.
Food poisoning from Escherichia coli O157 is an indication of faecal contamination – possibly from processed water or water for washing hands and utensils. The next time you stop at your favourite food joint, observe the hygiene of the premises and behavior of the vendors. You may have to give them a word or two on hygiene if need be; vendors digging their nose, wiping sweat with bare hands and returning to the food without proper handwashing, utensils and plates sitting on the bare floor, flies flying over food, fly-screens dirty and torn etc. Drawing the attention of your food vendor to such food safety infractions will go a long way to save your life and that of other customers.
It is also important to have an idea of the interval between when food is prepared and when it is supposed to be served. In the popular fried-rice (‘check-check’) joints, especially in Kumasi and other towns in the Ashanti Region, ready-to-eat salads can stay all evening on the table with customers being served from the same pot. Salads must always be kept in a refrigerator (1-4oC) and not stored in ambient temperatures – especially if it is not going to be served all at once. Storing salads in ambient temperature as practiced by many food vendors, including restaurants and hotels, is a recipe for food poisoning.
What to do at the onset of illness
It is of grave concern the way we treat incidents of food poisoning as individuals, pharmacists and even some medical doctors. The first thing to do when symptoms of food poisoning begin to show is to seek immediate medical attention. The first option is not to rush to a pharmacy shop; in most cases district hospitals and private clinics are even easier to reach.
A typical first-aid would be ORS (Oral Rehydration Salts), which should be administered while you reach a hospital. The purchase of drugs to stop diarrhea could be disastrous – especially if the case is a food infection where the live organisms have been consumed and multiplication continues in the tummy e.g. Salmonella infection. Once you stop the free flow of stool, the organisms cannot be flushed out and may worsen the condition. Always seek a medical doctor’s advice before taking any prescription drug. Everybody should be especially alarmed when these symptoms are accompanied by blurred vision and general body weakness. Botulinum poisoning is fatal!
Food safety audits
There are several corporate institutions which may have contracted food vendors, restaurants and hotels to provide lunch for their staff. The most prudent thing to do is to employ the services of food safety practitioners to audit such vendors regularly as part of the contractual agreement. This is a proactive step taken to prevent any food poisoning outbreak in your organisation. Stakeholders in food safety such as the FDA, GSA, Municipal authorities and private organisations such as QA Consult should do their part in stepping-up food premises’ inspections, audits and education to protect the public from food poisoning and foodborne diseases. While this is being done, the person reading this article should take food safety as a personal responsibility to stay alive.
Johnson Opoku-Boateng is the Managing Director & Lead Consultant, QA CONSULT (Consultants and Trainers in Quality Assurance, Health & Safety, Environmental Management systems, Manufacturing Excellence and Food Safety). He is also a consumer safety advocate and helps businesses with regulatory affairs. He can be reached via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.