"Food detectives" on the case in Bucks

February 13, 2009 9:41:48 PM PST
When food becomes the cause of sickness, tracking down the source can be tough. But some local "food detectives" get to the bottom of it.

Gloria Lucas of Southampton, New Jersey believes something she ate around Christmas-time made her so sick she could barely get out of bed.

Gloria recalls having vomiting and diarrhea, "It lasted a whole 8 days. Even after that left, I was so weak."

Every year, 76 million Americans report getting sick from food.

But Dr. David Damsker, Bucks County's Public Health Director, believes that's just 5-percent of the total number of people affected.

Dr. Damsker says, "Not everyone who gets it feels sick enough to visit a doctor."

And even when a case *is reported, finding the cause can be difficult.

Dr. Damsker says, "Whenever people develop symptoms, a lot of times, the first thing they think of is, oh, it's the restaurant that I just ate at that got me sick. When in reality, the incubation period for a lot of these diseases is one to 3 days, or even longer."

And complicating matters -

Food itself may not always be the culprit.

Bacteria and viruses can live on surfaces for hours, or even days...

So workers who are sick can contaminate other items diners come in contact with.

Dr. Damsker says once problems are reported, investigators look for common factors linking the cases.

"Maybe," says Dr. Damsker, "They all ate in the same restaurant , they shared the same food somewhere, they live in the same household."

The food detectives then combine information and try to pinpoint a probable source.

Then come on-site inspections.

Bill Roth, a supervisor in the health department, sayas, "We'll go back until we find out that it is either not or that it is the cause. If it is the cause, generally speaking, we will close the place down until we find out what happened there so that we don't have any more people becoming sick."

Foodborne illnesses typically last only a few days. But you should call a doctor if you're unable to drink fluids after a few days.... Sooner for children and the elderly.

And if you suspect food poisoning, you should report it to your local health department.

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