Gastronomic Gremlins

Here’s a lineup of several infamous microbial scoundrels that live to make you ill. Knowing how to prevent these gastronomic invaders from contaminating your body is half the battle; but we also provide tips on what to do if you do get sick.


These sneaky bacteria are probably the most common cause of food poisoning. Infected food usually tastes fine.

Symptoms: Within 12 to 20 hours after eating, you may develop nausea, abdominal pain, diarrhea, headache, and sometimes fever. While the illness rarely lasts more than three days, these symptoms can last two weeks or longer.

Where it’s found: The main hosts are raw poultry, eggs, fish, and other meat. Lettuce and other produce can also be contaminated.

How to prevent salmonella:

Don’t eat raw eggs. Be wary of uncooked foods that contain eggs. Don’t buy cracked eggs, and if you crack one at home, use it within a few hours or give it an immediate burial. And always keep eggs refrigerated in the carton – preferably on a shelf, not the door, which can be 1 to 2 degrees warmer.

Keep meat cold. When shopping, put meat or chicken in your cart last, and pack it in an iced cooler if you’re not heading straight home. Use poultry and ground meat within two days of purchase, or freeze it.

Don’t thaw at room temperature. Thaw foods only in the refrigerator, microwave, or in cold water. Marinate only in the refrigerator — and never reuse marinade.

Use a food thermometer. Don’t guess whether or not your goose is cooked. Cook meats until the center reaches 165 degrees F (74 degrees C).

Wash fresh produce thoroughly. Plain water and a vegetable brush are all you need. Throw away the outer leaves on produce like lettuce, cabbage, and brussels sprouts.

E. coli

Some strains of the bacterium Escherichia coli can cause a potentially fatal inflammation of the colon.

Where it’s found: The potentially deadly strain of E. coli is found mostly in raw or undercooked ground meat. Produce and unpasteurized apple juice have been other sources.

Symptoms: You’ll likely be doubled over with diarrhea, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and sometimes fever within 8 hours — and you might stay that way for a week. This infection can be fatal, especially for young children.

How to prevent E.coli:

Cook meat thoroughly. Well-done is well done. Never eat burgers with pink centers, and make sure all your cooked, ground-meat juices run clear. Although whole muscle meat is not as dangerous, even prime rib that runs red can spell trouble.

Wash fresh produce thoroughly. Discard outer leaves.

Clostridium botulinum

Though it happens rarely, a toxin made by spores of this bacterium causes botulism, an often fatal illness if left untreated.

Where it’s found: Improperly canned or preserved foods. Commercially canned foods have an excellent record. Home canning and preserving can be riskier when approved methods aren’t followed.

Symptoms: Within 12 to 36 hours of eating tainted food, you could experience fatigue, double vision, nausea, vomiting, or difficulty speaking. This is super-serious stuff — not to be taken lightly. Respiratory and muscular paralysis soon follow these other symptoms, and the results are usually fatal if left untreated.

How to prevent clostridium botulinum: Scan cans and jars. Never, ever use cans of food that are bulging, leaking, dented or emit a foul odor when opened. Same goes for cracked glass jars or those with loose or bulging lids.

Toss it if it blows. The bacterium can pressurize containers, so any food that erupts upon opening can cause the same reaction in you.


All sorts of fungi just love to grow into many-celled, filamentous colonies, especially on bread and in spaghetti-sauce jars. Some molds just destroy taste, but others — like Aspergillus flavus — make people extremely sick.

Where it’s found: Mold usually forms on dairy products, bread, and acidic foods like tomato sauce or jelly, stored in moist, dark areas in airtight containers, according to Manfred Kroger, Ph.D., Prevention advisor and professor of food science at Penn State University.

Symptoms: If you’re lucky, aspergillus will make you vomit quickly. If not, this mold toxin might cause liver disease, which could potentially result in cancer.

How to prevent mold: If any food is very moldy, wrap it up and throw it away. However, small moldy spots on hard cheese and firm fruits and vegetables can be cut away, including a 1-inch margin around and below the spot. You can also scoop out tiny spots of mold from jelly and jam. First remove the mold itself, then, with a clean spoon, the area around it. Though experts don’t all agree, most of those we spoke with advise discarding other foods with mold, including bread and cottage cheese.

When to call your doctor
If diarrhea and vomiting are excessive (you’re losing more fluids than you can take in); if diarrhea is bloody; if even milder symptoms last longer than three days; or if the victim is at high risk – very young, very old, or has another illness.

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