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Foodborne Illness ‘Most Recent Meal’ Bias

Foodborne illness impacts each of us.  As a young boy growing up in the Midwest, McDonald’s was a favorite establishment of mine whether I was in it for the food, the toys, or both.  On a particularly cold and clear Ohio day, I found myself admiring my new Ronald McDonald digital watch just recently procured from my favorite fast-food chain (read QSRs).  While my agenda in the past had wavered, my motivation today was solely material.  You see, these watches were promoted heavily and the marketing geniuses behind the campaign had really done a number on me.

I took the watch off my wrist to further examine its wonder.

The smooth, navy blue plastic bands seemed unnecessarily strong and led to a surprisingly heavy headpiece emblazoned with the head of the hamburger clown.  The digital display placed centrally on the watch head and bordered by the clown’s hands as if holding the time just for you was mesmerizing. It’s hard to believe in this age of ever-advancing technology that even a young person could be impressed by a cheap, plastic timepiece, but I was.  I recall waiting for the minute to change so I could catch the moment when certain pixels turned off and others turned on to erase the old-time and form the new.

These watches had been released in limited supply and while I needed no additional motivation to obtain this trendy, and now scarce, timepiece, it took three separate trips to my local franchise to ultimately have one bestowed upon me.  By trip #2, my usual fare had bored my young palette, so I opted to give an innovative new product called “Chicken McNuggets” a try. From what I recall they seemed fine if unremarkable though I doubt much could have distracted me from my prize.

That evening, as I laid on the couch watching television with my mother, a feeling started in my stomach which grew rapidly in intensity.  I remember seeing my abdomen appear to vibrate as nausea filled my body and the taste of bile grew in my throat.  Without warning my small body contracted and a thick stream of vomit emerged like a geyser from the ground.  It was everywhere.  There seemed to be gallons. Some made it on the ceiling.  It covered the TV remote.  It covered Mom’s bowl of popcorn.

With regards to the onset of my illness and the brief, but intense, pain & suffering that followed, I had been holding it together fairly well. That changed when I looked down at my wrist and saw that my watch had also become a victim of my emetic event.  Dark gray, chunky residue coated the watch and dripped down from it as I stood there. I looked up at my Mother who had already read my mind.

“Can I still keep it, Mom?”, I asked, between tears and hard to get breaths. “We’ll see honey…”, she replied with a look of empathy.

That was the beginning of a very long night that etched itself into my memory not only because I didn’t get the watch back.  Diarrhea started churning inside me, keeping me tied to the bathroom while the vomiting continued into the next morning.  Several changes of my bedding and a jumbo-sized bottle of Pepto Bismol allowed me to make it through the night.

So, what made me sick?

Was it Salmonella, E.coli or Campylobacter from the Chicken McNuggets because they weren’t cooked properly or became contaminated afterward?  Listeria monocytogenes from the sauce? Could it have been Norovirus from an infected food handler?  What about Staph aureus due to temperature abuse?  Can I even be sure it was microbially catalyzed versus some chemical exposure or other toxicity?

While most of us instinctively think the last meal we ate is what made us sick, this is often not the case.  Chemical toxicity such as from ingesting cleaning chemicals or other toxins typically has extremely rapid onset within a few to several minutes.  However, microbial causes of illness, whether bacterial, viral, fungal or parasitic, typically have much longer onset times.  Except for S. aureus, whose toxin can cause symptoms as quickly as 1 hour after ingesting it, the majority of microbially induced illnesses take upwards of 6-8 hours for symptoms to be experienced with many common pathogens having onset times of several days up to several weeks. The bottom line is when you experience foodborne illness, your second, third, or eighth most recent meals are just as likely the cause as your most recent meal.

As is typically the case with foodborne illnesses without analytical testing, I will never come to know the exact culprit of that illness. Both my new watch and my naïve, carefree sense of eating without repercussions died that day.  What I can be sure of is how great the impact of this experience was and that it forever changed my relationship with food.

While this story turns out to have a happy ending that excited my passion for food safety, there are many stories that don’t turn out as well.  Whether limited to a temporary bout of illness or extreme as a lifelong debilitation, foodborne illnesses are PREVENTable.  Education and training are key.  Even with the advent of increased automation and AI in food manufacturing, human beings are still the key players in the food supply today.  Foodborne illnesses are typically the result of human failure be it training or execution.

Avert Food Safety Advisors can help you CORRECT employee behavior and culture through training, inspections, and program development.  Contact us today to start PROTECTing your customers, your brand, and your business.


Matthew McClure provides sound strategies that instill cost-effective methods for building robust food safety, operational and quality assurance programs. Along with a Bachelor of Applied Science in Microbiology from The University of Akron and an MBA in Finance from Louisiana State University, Matthew brings over 20 years of experience in the food safety industry to AVERT Food Safety Advisors. His knowledge spans many areas including FDA food processing facilities, USDA meat and poultry plants, dietary supplement manufacturers, retail, cannabis manufacturing, and food service operations.

Contact us for more information: | Tel: +1 702.706.6574

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