When Good Food Turns Bad

When was the last time you enjoyed a meal, only to have it come back to haunt you at 2am? Joanna Hall investigates what happens when food poisoning strikes.

Food poisoning is a common problem in Australia, with about 5.4 million of us falling sick every year. Although most people only suffer a mild illness, from which they recover quickly, food poisoning can have serious consequences for some people.

What is food poisoning and why does it happen? 

bad food

Food poisoning occurs when you consume food or drink that has been contaminated with bacteria, a virus or toxins. Depending on the cause, it produces a variety of nasty symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, stomach or abdominal pain, diarrhoea and fever.

And food poisoning doesn’t always occur from eating something exotic, says Lydia Buchtmann from Food Standards Australia New Zealand. “You can get ill from eating and drinking almost anything if it’s not handled or stored properly, even something good for your health,” she explains. “People don’t realise uncooked foods such as salads and raw vegetables are just as high risk as raw meat.”

One theory about why food poisoning incidents are on the rise is to do with the change in the way we cook. “Our grandmothers and mothers cooked food more thoroughly than we do,” says Buchtmann. “The meat would be roasted through and the vegetables boiled, which kills bacteria.”

Another theory surrounds what we’re eating. “More people are eating salads, but if you prepare a chicken breast and salad for dinner, there’s a risk of cross-contamination,” explains Buchtmann. “Raw meat can drip onto the salad, but then the salad doesn’t get cooked and the bacteria [the chicken] leaves behind can make you sick.

Treating Food Poisoning

About 120 people a year die from food poisoning. So who’s mainly at risk? According to Professor Peter Collignon, an infectious diseases and microbiology expert from the Australian National University Medical School, it’s the extremes of age. “The very young and the very elderly are most at risk of a severe infection,” he says. “But pregnant women also need to take particular care, especially where listeria is concerned, as infection can cause a miscarriage.”

Most people will recover from a bout of food poisoning within days and, in most cases, all you need to do is stay at home, rest and avoid dehydration by drinking plenty of fluids. “Give the bowel a rest, avoid eating fats and proteins, drink plenty of fluids, and eat a bland diet for a few days,” says Collignon.

If your symptoms are severe, or they continue beyond a few days, you should seek medical help quickly.