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Can Vegans Get Food Poisoning

One of the great things about being vegan is that food poisoning isn't really a thing. Your tofu scramble won't put you in hospital with salmonella poisoning, the tempeh fajita wrap you made for lunch isn't going to cause an E.coli infection. But, does that mean that vegans can't get food poisoning, that vegan food simply cannot be toxic?

Its interesting that food poisoning numbers go down as more people go vegan

Food Poisoning

"Food poisoning is an illness caused by eating contaminated food."

NHS Inform

The term "food poisoning" is very broad, it is commonly used to describe illness caused by the consumption of food or drink. The term covers a range of causes including viruses, bacteria and parasites, toxins, excessive amounts of alcohol as well as toxic chemicals that can be found on foods, such as fertilisers. Foods can sometimes be contaminated with bacteria or toxins during processing or cooking, other times the food can be spoiled, or not prepared according to instructions.

In the UK, campylobacter bacteria are the most common cause of food poisoning. The bacteria are usually found on raw or undercooked meat, particularly chicken and turkey, unpasteurised milk and in untreated water. Listeria bacteria can be found in a range of chilled, ‘ready-to-eat’ foods, including pre-packed sandwiches, cooked sliced meats and pâté, as well as mould ripened soft cheeses like brie or camembert. Salmonella bacteria is often found in raw or undercooked meat, raw eggs, milk, and other dairy products. Salmonella is responsible for the highest number of hospitalisations due to food poisoning in the UK. Escherichia coli, commonly known as E. coli, is bacteria found in the digestive systems of many animals, including humans. Most strains are harmless but some can cause serious illness. Most cases of E. coli food poisoning occur after eating undercooked beef or drinking unpasteurised milk.

Poisoning In Vegans

Most cases of food poisoning are caused by eating or drinking animal products, undercooked or poorly stored meat and eggs or dairy products that have not been kept chilled at a steady temperature. But, this does not mean that vegans cannot be poisoned by their food, too. This can happen from cross-contamination from animal products, but also from the plant itself. Some plants, such as a lot of bean plants, including the pinto bean, make toxins. This is why foods can need to be soaked before coking to allow the toxins to leach into the water. As an example, kidney beans contain a toxin called phytohemagglutinin, if this chemical isn't removed from the beans before eating people can suffer from abdominal pain, sever cramps, nausea and diarrhoea. This can easily be avoided by soaking the beans in cold water for at least 5 hours, rinsing and then boiling for a minimum of 10 minutes before cooking.

Food poisoning can also occur when food is washed in contaminated water, an infection caused by shigella bacteria, known as bacillary dysentery or shigellosis can occur in this way. Bacteria found in soil can cause botulism with symptoms that include diarrhoea and vomiting. Between 2019 - 2020 there was a worldwide listeria outbreak caused by pre-packed salads. Some of these salads were used to make sandwiches for hospital patients and many became very ill with the poisoning and some died. The outbreak was caused by cross-contamination, vegetables had been fertilised with animal manure which was not washed away properly during processing. The bacteria remained on the salad leaves and went on to poison a lot of people across the world.

Avoiding Food Poisoning

Food poisoning cannot be completely prevented, all foods have the potential to become dangerous, even food that you grow at home, if there is bacteria in soil that isn't cleaned away before eating for example. All foods should be both stored and prepared appropriately, always follow manufacturers' instructions when available. However, there are some foods that are more high risk, these include:

  • fresh fruits and vegetables (e.g. lettuce, spinach, raspberries)

  • cooked rice, lentils, pasta, beans and chickpeas

  • pre-cut or pre-washed fruits and vegetables

  • unpasteurized fruit juices

  • raw sprouts

  • bread

  • tofu

Food should always be checked before cooking or eating, if it looks or smells odd, do not eat it. This can include a change in colour or consistency, such a separation, bubbles on the surface of foods or a bad smell. If food tasted odd, particularly if it tasted fermented, spit it out and throw the rest away. The risk of food poisoning can be reduced by using simple measures:

  • Cook all food thoroughly

  • Always wash hands properly before handling and during food preparation, after using the toilet or putting things in the bin

  • Washing hands thoroughly after handling spoiled food

  • Always store cooked food chilled, do not leave it at room temperature for long periods

  • Do not eat food that has had contact with someone who has been ill

  • Cross-contamination must be avoided. This can happen when harmful bacteria are spread between food, surfaces and equipment, such as using a dirty chopping board

  • Drinking water which has not been properly untreated, such as from rivers or streams

Bottom line, if in doubt throw it out, better safe than sorry and all of that.


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