Mind and Body: Teaching children food safety habits

By Carlene Whitt

Clark County Health Dept. Environmentalist

The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stress that everyone is at risk for food poisoning — an illness that comes from eating contaminated food.

However, some people, such as young children, are at greater risk for experiencing a more serious illness or even death should they get a foodborne illness. A child’s immune system (the body’s defense to detect and destroy pathogens) is not as developed as an adult’s.

Symptoms of food poisoning may occur within minutes to weeks after consuming contaminated food and often present themselves as flu-like symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or fever. Because the symptoms are often flu-like, many people may not recognize that the illness is caused by harmful bacteria or other pathogens in food. Some microorganisms, such as listeria monocytogenes and clostridium botulinum, cause far more serious symptoms than vomiting and diarrhea.

In some people, especially children, hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) can result from infection by a particular strain of bacteria, E. coli 0157:H7 and can lead to kidney failure and death.

HUS is a rare disorder that affect primarily children between the ages of 1 and 10 years and is the leading cause of acute renal failure in previously healthy children.

A child may become infected after consuming contaminated food or beverages, such as meat, especially undercooked ground beef, unpasteurized juices, contaminated water or through contact with an infected person.

The most common symptoms of HUS infection are vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhea, which may be bloody.

One of the best ways to teach food safety is to practice it — and to be vocal about why it is being practiced. This needs to begin as soon as the child is aware of and is taking an interest in food (beyond throwing it!).

As the data shows, food safety is particularly important for young children. In addition to hand washing and good hygiene, their food safety is tightly linked to the food safety behaviors of the parents and caregivers.

Parents and caregivers can help prevent illnesses by instructing the children to follow these recommendations:

— Place books, book bags and sporting equipment on the floor, not on eating counters or the kitchen table where germs could be transferred.

— Clean out lunch boxes and throw away perishable sandwiches or other “refrigerator type” foods, such as yogurt tubes or cheese sticks, left over from lunch.

— Wash hands before making or eating a snack. Hands carry lots of germs, and not washing hands is a top cause of foodborne illness.

— Always use clean spoons, forks and plates.

— Wash fruits and vegetables with running tap water before you eat them.

— Do not eat bread, cheese, soft fruits or vegetables that are bruised or have spots of mold.

— Do not eat unbaked cookie dough because it may contain raw eggs that can have salmonella bacteria.

— Do not leave cold items, like milk, lunch meat, hardcooked eggs or yogurt, out on the counter at room temperature. Put these foods back in the refrigerator as soon you’ve fixed your snack.

— Don’t eat any perishable food left out of the refrigerator, such as pizza, even if it isn’t topped with meat. Food should not be left in the temperature “danger zone” of 41 to 135 degrees F for more than two hours (one hour if the ambient temperature is 90 degrees F or higher).

— When reheating leftovers or packaged food in a microwave, use a food thermometer to make sure food has reached a temperature high enough to destroy harmful bacteria. These foods should reach 165 degrees F.

These basics are important in keeping every child safe from foodborne illnesses.

For more information, call the Clark County Health Department at 744-4482 or visit www.clarkhealthdept.org.