State and local public health officials are reminding Montanans about ways to stay healthy when preparing and consuming food.
So far in 2019, there have been 25 gastrointestinal illness outbreaks reported in Montana in numerous counties. Eighteen of these were caused or suspected by norovirus. A small Salmonella outbreak occurred in Missoula county earlier this year as well, although a source could never be determined.
In 2018, there were 30 Montanans sickened by multi-state foodborne disease outbreaks. There were an additional three outbreaks that sickened 20 people who were linked to foodborne events occurring only in Montana.
“The important message that we’d like the public to be aware of is that there has definitely been an increase in foodborne outbreaks impacting Montanans over the past couple of years, so now is a good time to review basic prevention measures to help prevent these illnesses,” said Rachel Hinnenkamp, epidemiologist for the Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS).
Foodborne illnesses are often caused by consuming food that is undercooked, has not been stored or washed properly, or has been contaminated by another food item or a sick food handler. Additionally, every year there are many more foodborne illnesses that are never linked to an outbreak or never reported to providers and public health.
According to Hinnenkamp, raw meat such as chicken, beef, and oysters may contain bacteria like Salmonella, Shiga toxin-producing E. coli, and Vibriosis. “These foods should be cooked thoroughly to avoid getting sick,” she said.
Additionally, some groups of people are more likely to become ill and have a serious illness, including children under five, pregnant women, adults aged 65 and over, and immunocompromised individuals.
DPHHS Sanitarian Jeff Havens emphasizes that people should follow the four steps of food safety to avoid illness.
These steps are:
Clean: wash hands, utensils, and surfaces often when cooking
Separate: separate germ-spreading raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs from cooked food and produce
Cook: use a food thermometer to make sure foods are cooked to an internal temperature that kills germs
Chill: refrigerate perishable foods and leftovers within 2 hours
However, he said if there’s ever a question whether food is safe for consumption, always stick to this basic message: “When in doubt, throw it out.”
Havens shares that there have been multiple foodborne disease outbreaks in recent years linked to events catered by unlicensed caterers. DPHHS encourages individuals to ask about the licensing status of caterers before they are hired to provide food for an event. “It is also important to remember not to cook for others while you are ill, as this can spread illness to the people who are consuming your food,” Havens said.
For more information, visit the Montana DPHHS website at https://dphhs.mt.gov/.