Food poisoning

25 Jul 2013 05.08 am by Renny Wijeyamohan

It was 3am. Our group had arrived in Antigua after the 6 hour commute from Lanquin. Then it hit. A wave of nausea, stomach pain, vomiting and worse. One by one – like clockwork – our group of 10 crawled to the bathroom in the western wing of the hostel. In an impressive display of biological coordination our group had that toilet on rotation all night.

The only thing worse than leaping from your bed and running to the bathroom, was doing it in a time that would qualify for the Jamaican 100m relay team only to find the door shut and another poor wretch atoning for their sins at the porcelain altar. 

To this day, I would love to know what the two Spanish girls (not part of our group) sleeping in the room next to toilet thought about the powerful rumblings emanating from nearby. Demolition works – artillery drills performed by the Guatemalan Army – an enraged Howler Monkey gone rogue from the Tikal ruins – all come to mind as plausible possibilities.

The next day we called a team meeting and identified the source of our collective torture – a chicken burger that we had all eaten at a Lanquin restaurant. It would take me 2 weeks, 5 kilograms and a visit to an Ecuadorian emergency room to beat the bug once and for all. Needless to say, by the time I’d left Guatemala I’m pretty sure I was on the Guatemalan Plumbers Association’s Most Wanted List for crimes against humanity. 

A great travel story, now, but a scary experience at the time. 

What is food poisoning?

Food poisoning is an illness caused by eating food contaminated with bacteria, viruses or toxins like Campylobacter, E. coli, Listeria, Salmonella, Shigella or Staphylococcus. It’s a growing problem – as food distribution networks become more complex, farming practices change and consumption increases – potential for food poisoning outbreaks on a global scale increases. The World Health Organisation estimates that 5000 people die from food poisoning each year in the United States alone while a staggering 1.8 million die each year from food poisoning in developing countries. I was really lucky to be able to access hospital infrastructure in Central America that many locals just can’t afford.

How can I tell if I have food poisoning?

Depending on the type of food poisoning you have – the incubation period (how long it takes for you to get sick), symptoms and the duration of the illness may vary. Staphylococcus and Salmonella can make you sick in a matter of hours, while E. coli, Listeria and Shigella can take days. Some common symptoms include diarrhoea, abdominal cramps, fever, nausea and chills. The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDKD) has a checklist of symptoms here – if you experience any of these for more than 24 hours the NIDDKD recommends that you should see a doctor immediately.

What foods are high-risk for food poisoning?

Some food is particularly susceptible to contamination – in fact, the Centre for Science in Public Interest compiled a list of the top 10 foods that cause food poisoning (as reported by the New York Times). They are:

  1. Leafy greens
  2. Eggs
  3. Tuna
  4. Oysters
  5. Potatoes
  6. Cheese
  7. Ice cream
  8. Tomatoes
  9. Sprouts
  10. Berries

Interestingly, this study debunks myths about the prevalence of food poisoning arising mainly from meats like beef and chicken. Fresh produce like lettuce, spinach, sprouts and berries can be contaminated from animal contact, unclean water during irrigation and mishandling during washing and freezing. Looking back to the chicken burger then – it may not have been the chicken at all that turned my stomach into a microbial heaven. Instead, the statistics from the Centre for Science in the Public Interest seem to suggest that the lettuce in the burger (chilled with ice to keep it fresh) could well have done the damage.

Why is food poisoning an important issue for food gardeners?

While many harmful pathogens enter food during the distribution, storage and cooking stages, the Centre for Science in the Public Interest recommends better food safety practices to avoid amongst food gardeners, organic farmers and small-time growers. CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith De Waal highlights the use of dirty irrigation water and untreated manure as two factors which can help spread animal pathogens to fruits and vegetables. So if you’re planning on starting up your own vegetable garden (or you’re already in action) make sure the water you are using to feed your plants is clean and you know how to use manure safely.


e. coli  
food poisoning  

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