When you tell people you’re a food writer, the subject of food poisoning almost invariably rears its head (or flagellum). I’m often asked about the worst case of food poisoning I’ve ever had, or told — in gory detail — about the state of others’ gastrointestinal tracts.
The truth is, the bugaboos of food-poisoning lore — undercooked fish or pork, raw oysters, dairy products at room temperature — are far, far less likely to make you sick than the most common cause of food poisoning, which is poultry: not always undercooked chicken, but, more commonly, raw chicken cross-contamination.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that campylobacter is the most common cause of intestinal infection in the world. It’s found in the digestive tracts of healthy chickens, and the CDC notes that most raw poultry has campylobacter on it — so that means that any tiny drop of raw chicken juice that makes it from a knife or the faucet handle or a spatula onto your plate has the potential to make you sick. Campylobacter infects 2.4 million people every year in the United States alone — but it doesn’t usually make the news.
The worst case of food poisoning I’ve ever had came from exactly that bacteria. It landed me in the hospital for several days, pumped up with morphine — which is not at all as fun as it sounds — with a bleeding GI tract. At least it was an effective crash diet.
When I tried to think back to where I might have gotten it, it was almost impossible to tell. The doctor said that the bacteria takes three to four days to cause symptoms, so it could have been any one of three restaurants — no, I can’t name them, not only because it wouldn’t be right, but also because it could be libelous, since I have no proof.
And that leads us to another common misconception: If you go out for dinner, come home, and have an upset stomach, it’s not necessarily food poisoning. Many food-borne illnesses take a day or more to manifest themselves. Eating too much, eating food you’re not used to, or eating food that’s too rich — these things can make you feel sick, it just doesn’t mean you’ve been poisoned. Depending on what kind of bacteria you’ve swallowed, the incubation period can be as short as several hours, or as long as four days.
It doesn’t do much good to worry about it. There’s no way to tell if a restaurant is going to give you food poisoning. I think many of the health codes are like airport security — there to make you feel better, but not terribly effective. What good does it do to make cooks wear gloves? They might touch raw chicken with the gloves on and then arrange your microgreens with the same latex-encased fingers.
So, what about you, good eaters? Do you worry about food poisoning from restaurants? Do you avoid certain restaurants because of that? And what’s the worst case of food poisoning you’ve ever had?