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Foodies Beware: Food Poisoning May Be on the Menu

Apr 24, 2014

If you're concerned about food poisoning, it might be best to eat in.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest reported in April that restaurants in the U.S. are responsible for twice as many food poisoning outbreaks as private homes.

Between 2002-11, more than 1,600 outbreaks of food poisoning were associated with restaurant visits, affecting 28,570 diners, the report says. In contrast, 893 outbreaks were traced to home cooking, resulting in 13,000 people falling ill because of food poisoning.

When you're home, you directly control how your food is prepared.

"We lose almost all control in restaurants," says Russell Vinik, MD, an associate professor of internal medicine at the University of Utah. "We don't know who is preparing our food and usually don't get to see the kitchen. On the other hand, restaurants have good incentives to prevent food poisoning. They have obligations from the health department, but also their reputation. Customers who get sick usually don't come back."

Protecting Yourself from Food Poisoning

This doesn't mean you have to stop supporting your local dining spots—just be careful. Get familiar with Utah's food safety rules. Food vendors of any kind must abide by state laws concerning the handling of ingredients and their cooking and holding temperatures. Restaurants are subject to inspections to protect the public health, and those inspection results are posted online.

"Most health departments have ratings and publish inspection dates and findings," Vinik says. "If there is a particular restaurant you are unsure of, you can look it up. The Salt Lake County Health Department has made all of this information public."

If you experience food poisoning after a restaurant meal or after takeout, contact your doctor immediately. Wrap up the food so it can be tested in a lab. Save the containers the food came in, and tell your health department if you think your illness resulted from contamination at a local restaurant. In Salt Lake County, call the health department at 385-468-8888 or file a report online here.

Food Poisoning Symptoms

None of us is immune from illness if we eat contaminated food. But some people are at greater risk: pregnant women, older adults, and those with chronic illnesses are more likely to get sick and have more serious side effects from food poisoning.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each year 1 in 6 Americans becomes ill from contaminated food, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die.

Often, people think they have a "stomach flu" or virus, but it's actually a mild case of food poisoning. They've been exposed to a bacteria or virus when food is not handled properly.

A food-borne illness grows in the digestive tract after a person eats a contaminated meat or vegetable. The microbes continue to grow, causing an infection. Symptoms can include:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea
  • Headache
  • Bloating and gas