Public health officials are encouraging Iowans to take precautions against foodborne illnesses this winter, particularly when preparing meals for holiday season gatherings.
“As far as outbreaks in Iowa, we are starting to see more norovirus and bacterial foodborne-related outbreaks associated with group get-togethers or in populations that are in close contact with each other, which is very typical for this time of year,” said Ann Garvey, deputy state epidemiologist with the Iowa Department of Public Health.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates approximately 48 million people get sick every year from foodborne illnesses, which is caused by food contaminated by bacteria, viruses, parasites or toxins. Officials say an estimated 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths occur each year as a result.
The state public health department investigates foodborne outbreaks linked to large family gatherings each year, and food handling errors and inadequate cooking are the most common problems that lead to these illnesses, according to a news release from the department.
In 2017, there were 186 infectious disease outbreaks investigated by the department statewide, Garvey said.
And with thousands of people gathering around a table for the holidays this month, here are the best steps to ensure safe and healthy food preparation according to state and federal public health officials:
• Wash your hands before, during and after preparing food.
• Wash fruit and vegetables.
• Do not wash meat. Bacteria can be splattered across your kitchen and cross-contaminate other surfaces.
• Keep raw foods — especially meat, poultry, seafood and eggs — separate from ready-to-eat foods using separate cutting boards and cooking utensils.
• Cook food to proper temperature, even when reheating leftovers.
• Keep hot food hot and cold food cold. Bacteria can rapidly grow at room temperature.
Garvey said its typical for officials to see increases in outbreaks of clostridium, or a bacteria present in food-related illnesses, this time of year.
“Anytime you’re cooking for large groups of people, it’s especially important to follow all of those recommendations,” she said.
In addition, Garvey said anyone who has recently been infected with norovirus — or stomach virus — should wait at least a couple of days after recovering before cooking and preparing food for others.
“You may be feeling better, but you still could have the virus and infect others,” she said.
The most common germs to cause foodborne illnesses include norovirus and salmonella, but others like E. coli and clostridium botulinum are more likely to lead to hospitalization.
Illnesses can last from a few hours to several days.
The most common symptoms of food poisoning include:
• Stomach cramps or upset stomach
• Nausea and/or vomiting