Cohen Medical Associates is a family medical center and research center located in Delray Beach, FL.
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How to Protect Yourself from Food-borne Illnesses

If you think you can stay safe from an E. coli outbreak simply by avoiding Wendy’s hamburger chain, our primary care doctors in Delray Beach think you need more information.

For one thing, it’s not just Wendy’s that has had trouble with contaminated lettuce. For another, it’s not just lettuce that causes E. coli outbreaks, along with other foodborne illnesses.

And many of those infections can prove deadly.

Widespread contamination

Wendy’s restaurants were found to be the source of an E. coli outbreak last month that infected at least 97 people in six states and caused 43 of them to be hospitalized. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that each year, 48 million Americans become sick from foodborne illnesses. Of those, 128,000 are hospitalized, and about 3,000 die.

And the sources of many foodborne illnesses are most definitely not confined to Wendy’s. 

For example, just this year:

  • The CDC reported an E. coli outbreak traced to two brands of packaged salads.
  • More than 120,000 pounds of ground beef were recalled this spring for E. coli contamination.
  • Officials linked Jif brand peanut butter to a multistate outbreak of salmonella, forcing a recall.
  • A listeria outbreak traced to Big Olaf Creamery in Sarasota, Florida caused the company to recall its ice cream products.

But the CDC reports that nearly half of the foodborne illnesses come from produce, especially lettuce. (The next worst food offenders from highest to lowest are meat, poultry, dairy, eggs, fish, and shellfish.) And romaine lettuce is often a major culprit.

This is because romaine’s crinkled leaves grow in an elongated rosette shape, making it difficult if not impossible to wash it sufficiently to remove all of the surface contamination. In addition, the lettuce is often grown near concentrated animal growing operations, which can allow for cross-contamination from soil and water.


According to the CDC, common symptoms of foodborne diseases are nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, and diarrhea.  However, symptoms may differ among the different types of foodborne illnesses.

Symptoms can sometimes be severe, and some foodborne illnesses can even be life-threatening, as we mentioned above.

Although anyone can get a foodborne illness, some people are more likely to develop one. Those who are particularly susceptible include:

  • older adults
  • young children
  • pregnant women
  • people with immune systems weakened from medical conditions, such as diabetes, liver disease, kidney disease, organ transplants, or HIV/AIDS, or those who are receiving chemotherapy or radiation treatment

Staying Safe

So how can you reduce your chances of encountering these nasty germs? First, always assume leafy greens are contaminated and rinse them thoroughly if you plan to eat them raw.

Check to see if prepackaged leafy greens are labeled “ready to eat,” “triple washed” or “no washing necessary.” These leafy greens do not need to be washed again. All other leafy greens should be thoroughly washed before eating, cutting, or cooking according to these CDC recommendations:

  • Wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap and water before preparing leafy greens.
  • Discard outer leaves and any torn or bruised ones.
  • Rinse the leafy greens under running water and use your hands to gently rub the surface of the leaves.
  • Don’t soak leafy greens in a sink or bowl filled with water, which can spread contamination through the water to other leaves.
  • Dry leafy greens with a clean cloth or paper towel.
  • Do not wash vegetables with soap, detergent, or produce washes.
  • Do not use a bleach solution or other disinfectants to wash produce.

Other Precautions

Here are more ways the CDC says you can reduce the risk from the most common foodborne bacterial infections.


  • Cook poultry, ground beef, and eggs thoroughly. Do not eat or drink foods containing raw eggs.
  • If you are served undercooked meat, poultry, or eggs in a restaurant, don’t hesitate to send it back to the kitchen for further cooking.
  • Wash hands, kitchen work surfaces, and utensils with soap and water immediately after they have been in contact with raw meat or poultry.
  • Wash hands with soap after handling reptiles, birds, or baby chicks, and after contact with pet feces.
  • Avoid raw milk, unpasteurized dairy products, and unpasteurized juices.
  • Don’t eat cake or cookie batter or dough.

E. Coli

  • Wash your hands thoroughly after using the bathroom or changing diapers and before preparing or eating food. Wash your hands after contact with animals or their environments (at farms, petting zoos, fairs, even in your own backyard).
  • Cook meats thoroughly. Ground beef and meat that has been needle-tenderized should be cooked to a temperature of at least 160°F/70°C. It’s best to use a thermometer, as color is not a very reliable indicator of “doneness.”
  • Avoid raw milk, unpasteurized dairy products, and unpasteurized juices (like fresh apple cider).
  • Avoid swallowing water when swimming or playing in lakes, ponds, streams, swimming pools, and backyard “kiddie” pools.
  • Prevent cross-contamination in food preparation areas by thoroughly washing hands, counters, cutting boards, and utensils after they touch raw meat.

Call us if you have diarrhea that lasts for more than three days, notice blood in your stools, or have diarrhea and a fever higher than 102°F. Also call if you are vomiting, unable to keep fluids down, or are passing very little urine. These could signal a serious condition.

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