Difference between food spoilage and food poisoning

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Difference between food spoilage and food poisoning
The red pepper on the left has been contaminated with food spoilage bacteria. Food spoilage does not necessarily lead to food poisoning, but food spoilage makes food inedible. (mould image by dinostock from Fotolia.com)

Food that has been tainted with food spoilage bacteria looks bad, smells bad and may even feel bad to the touch. But it will not necessarily make someone ill. The bacteria that cause spoilage are not necessarily the same ones that cause various kinds of food poisoning. Food poisoning happens when a person ingests food that has been contaminated with a parasite, bacteria or virus that causes an illness.

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Food Spoilage

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service, spoilage bacteria are single-cell organisms that make food go bad. Food that has been contaminated with food spoilage bacteria may have an unpleasant odour. It might feel slimy to the touch. Also, colour can be affected by spoilage bacteria.

Pathogenic Bacteria

Food bacteria that make people sick are called pathogenic bacteria. Unlike food spoilage bacteria, pathogenic bacteria often don't change the colour, odour or feel of a food. They thrive in the "temperature danger zone," between 4.44 degrees Celsius and 135 degrees, but some can survive even in extreme cold and heat. Food that is left in the "temperature danger zone" for too long is more prone to the bacteria that can cause food poisoning. Different kinds of pathogenic bacteria lead to different types of food poisoning.

Common Types of Food Poisoning

Food poisoning is commonly caused by E. coli or salmonella bacteria. E. coli is found most often in red meat. Salmonella is commonly found in poultry, eggs or dairy products. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about 73,000 Americans are infected each year with E. coli. Salmonella is the most common source of food poisoning in the U.S. The risk for E. coli and salmonella can be greatly reduced through safe food handling practices at home and in restaurants.

Symptoms of Food Poisoning

Some of the most common symptoms of food poisoning are diarrhoea, abdominal cramps, vomiting, fever and weakness, according to the National Institutes of Health. A doctor can perform tests to try to determine the type of food poisoning a patient is suffering from, but tests do not always lead to an answer. Symptoms of food poisoning generally leave after a few days, though there can be more severe cases. The very young, very old, pregnant or breastfeeding mothers, and those with weakened immune systems are most prone to food poisoning, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Preventing Food Poisoning

Many types of food poisoning can be prevented through common-sense steps. People who handle food must wash their hands thoroughly after using the bathroom and before handling food. Raw meats and poultry should be kept separate from vegetables and ready-to-eat foods. Storage is important, too. Raw meats should never be stored in a refrigerator above produce or ready-to-eat foods. Cooking foods to the proper temperature prevents food poisoning. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends different cooking temperatures for different types of meat. For minced meat, it is 71.1 degrees C. For chicken, it is 82.2 degrees C.

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