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Be aware that food can be a source of illness


Staff writer Andrea Torres chronicles her breast cancer experiences in Tropical Life every other Tuesday. Read past columns at

Food safety

In the refrigerator: Avoid crowding food into containers, make sure to separate raw meats, wipe up spills immediately, keep food covered, clean kitchen surfaces frequently.

Eggs: Buy them only if sold from a refrigerator, make sure eggs are clean and shells intact. Store in the refrigerator in their original carton and use them within three weeks.

Fruits and vegetables: Keep separate from meat, poultry and seafood, wash under running water with a clean brush, dry with paper towels, store in refrigerator, use non-porous cutting boards.

More information

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Giardia, Campylobacter, Shigella, Microsporidium, Cryptosporidium, Isospora, and Cyclospora —these are not ingredients for potions from a Harry Potter book. They are food-borne illnesses.

There is a world of bacteria, parasites and viruses that no one likes to think about when they enjoy a meal. But every day consumers are at the mercy of producers, distributors and restaurants.

I recently had a late dinner at one of my favorite restaurants: Saba noodles, chicken drumsticks with orange peel, flavored sparkling water and good conversation. Four hours later, I woke up with a sharp stomach ache. It was a rough awakening that has led me to be more conscious about what I eat. It was about 3 a.m., so I searched for “food poisoning” on YouTube and found a post from firefighter Capt. Joe Bruni, who has 33 years with the St. Petersburg Fire Department.

“Have you ever eaten some type of food product and then within a few hours felt the effects of nausea with diarrhea? You may be experiencing the signs and symptoms of food poisoning.”

It’s easy to confuse the symptoms with stomach flu. One thing was certain: my body was trying to get rid of an invader. It was at war and I felt weak. I pictured microbes from my food traveling through my esophagus, stomach and into my intestines, where they would attack and multiply. Earlier this month, U.S. Public Interest Research Group reported a 44 percent increase in food-borne illnesses in the last two years.

I checked for fever as often as I could, knowing that if my temperature was high I would have to go to the hospital. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, food-borne illnesses cause 3,000 deaths, 128,000 hospitalizations and sicken more than 15 percent of Americans every year. Bruni said that the main concern is to keep from becoming dehydrated, so I sipped cold water.

I called the Miami-Dade County Health Department and spoke to Juan Suarez, an epidemiologist with the Florida Department of Health. He asked me detailed questions about my whereabouts for breakfast, lunch and dinner in days prior. He joined the health department in 1987 and its Food and Waterborne Disease program in 1994.

“The delay between eating contaminated food and feeling the first symptoms is called the incubation period,” Suarez said. “It can take hours, days and in some cases months and even years. Because it took four hours, I don’t think it is live bacteria. I think it is a bacterial toxin or chemical.”

Suarez said that if my vomiting didn’t subside by the next day, I would have to be hospitalized to treat dehydration. The vomiting subsided about 15 hours later. That was when Bruni said I should eat things that are easy to digest such as rice, apple sauce or toast, and avoid high fiber foods and caffeine. My update on Facebook: “Saltine crackers never tasted so good. I’m feeling so much better.”

My friend Denise Castro posted: “You should not be eating out after what you have been through.”

She is right. I have been abusing the privilege. Cancer patients, pregnant women, children, the elderly, transplant recipients are some of the vulnerable populations with weakened immune systems who are at greater risk. But contamination can also occur at home. As consumers, we have to wash ingredients, refrigerate appropriately and cook meats thoroughly.

I have yet to hear from the restaurant manager or Suarez about what might have gone wrong with the food. I searched a database and found that the restaurant had been cited on Oct. 19 and was issued a warning for several “critical violations.” Had I known that, I would not have gone there.

Yes, food brings us together and it is fun to try new dishes, but be smart when it comes to eating out. And if you experience vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, flu-like symptoms such as fever, headache and body ache, contact a healthcare professional. Health is everything, and food is its foundation.

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