Last year, my sister and her then-fiancee/now-husband combined their bachelor/bachelorette parties into one giant joint celebration of fun. Forgoing the usual nonsense of strip clubs and cakes in the shape of male genitalia, they decided to boil down the festivities to three basic items: Beer, junk food, and bowling. While the massive consumption of the first two made the last activity a bit sloppy, it was still a great time had by all. That night, everyone went to bed with smiles on their faces from an evening well spent. Little did we know, ticking away inside our stomachs was a time bomb that would make the next 48 hours miserable.
See, one of those junk food items was a taco dip supplied by the bowling alley. And, sure, while we probably should have known better than to eat something like that, when you're at that level of drunken revelry, complex decisions like that are never handled properly. And because of that fateful mistake, some bad item in that taco dip forced the entire wedding party to spend the next few days lying on various coaches and in front of various toilets. It was a mess. And now, instead of remembering how great the actual day/night of celebration was, we're left with stronger memories of how disgusting the mess afterwards was.
Which is to say: Everyone has their food poisoning stories. Do a quick search on Twitter for the phrase "food poisoning" and you'll be shocked at how many people are experiencing it right now. A Google search for news concerning recent food poisonings brings us articles about a recall of raw milk for possible E. coli contamination and outbreaks of listeria currently ravaging the country. Food poisoning is really one of the only life events that truly unite us all. And, as this fascinating read over at Lapham's Quarterly by author Deborah Blum points out, food poisoning has been around since people have been messing with food:
"The adulteration of foods is as old as commerce itself," wrote historian and U.S. Food and Drug Administration employee F. Leslie Hart, some sixty years ago in the Food, Drug, Cosmetic Law Journal. Hart's evidence included fines for adulterating food which appear in ancient Sanskrit laws dating back to around 300 bc. Warnings about purveying risky foodstuffs filter into the Bible, including a very pointed passage in Leviticus concerning the consumption of bad meat. Similar warnings occur in Chinese writings dating back to the second century bc, as well as in the literature of the ancient Greek and Romans. Pliny the Elder wrote of wine purveyors who "I regret to say, employ noxious herbs" to color wine, creating a more beautiful and more toxic drink.
(She also goes on to tell a few amazing tales from history featuring folks from all social and economic classes adding a little extra something to meals in order to assassinate everyone from kings and emperors to their lovers that done them wrong. As I said, the whole piece is well worth the read.)
Thing is, despite the new additions to the FDA that will theoretically help us from getting food poisoning, as Jonathan Becher points out in Forbes, things aren't really getting any better in the realm of humans being poisoned by their food:
While the incidents of toxins in foods are dropping, bacterial and viral infections appear on the rise in recent years. In the U.S. alone, nearly 50 million people are subject to foodborne infections each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even the so-called "world's best restaurant" recently gave 70 customers food poisoning.
So, how do you avoid the unavoidable?
The same tips as ever are helpful: Wash your hands, cook your food thoroughly, clean your dishes, make sure not to cross-contaminate your chopping boards and knives, keep those items in need of refrigerator in the fridge. But those tips don't generally help us when we're out on the town and at the mercy of the cook.
At restaurants, before ordering, give a quick, cursory examination of the bathroom. While the quality of the facilities aren't necessarily directly related to what's going on in the kitchen, a filthy toilet may also indicate a lack of care. And of course, choose your buffets carefully. Oh, and one final tip, as if it needed to be stated: Steer clear from taco dips made at bowling alleys!