Wherever you’re cooking, microbes and bacteria can begin to affect food as soon as it is exposed. Correct and careful storage might sound finickity, but it can be of crucial, even life-saving importance. A tragic case has highlighted just how important practising proper food health and safety standards can be, whether it’s in a professional kitchen or in your own home.
After eating a bowl of pasta which had been left out on the kitchen side for a significant period of time, a 20-year-old Belgian student, known only to reporters as “AJ”, contracted sudden and severe food poisoning. This sadly led to his unexpected death only hours after he had finished the bowl.
The case, which occurred back in 2008, details how AJ, a fit, healthy, physically active sports enthusiast, had kept the bowl of spaghetti in a Tupperware container at room temperature for five days, before deciding to eat it. The Journal of Clinical Microbiology, a respected medical publication, picked up the case in 2011, where they were finally able to shed some light on exactly what had happened.
According to their report, AJ had reheated the old pasta, before heading out for sports practice. However, it was soon obvious that something was amiss. The JCM states that, “"Immediately after eating, he left home for his sports activities, but he returned 30 min later because of headache, abdominal pain, and nausea. At his arrival, he vomited profusely for several hours and at midnight had two episodes of watery diarrhea. He did not receive any medication and drank only water."
Naturally, both AJ and his parents assumed that the situation was no more serious than any other, more minor bout of food poisoning. However, by morning, it was clear that this case was completely different. According to contemporary reports, AJ’s parents, concerned after not seeing him for several hours, entered his room at around 11AM. They could see, from the moment that they entered the room, that their son had lost his life at some point in the night.
An autopsy, conducted in the immediate aftermath of the incident, revealed the shocking truth about what had been in the deadly bowl of pasta. Doctors confirmed that the student had contracted a particularly vociferous strain of bacillus cereus - a bacterium famous for its ability to infect reheated rice and cause severe, debilitating and even deadly illness. As the JCM reported, “Macroscopically, brownish and moderately softened liver and ascites (550 ml of citrine liquid) were found," highlighting the extreme nature of the incident and how the bacteria had essentially destroyed AJ’s liver in a matter of hours.
Though a case as acute as this is highly unusual, AJ’s tragedy provides a valuable lesson in the importance of food safety. Doctors generally advise that all leftovers be sealed and left in a refrigerator so as to minimise the risk of infection. Medical professionals also assert that if there is any doubt over the quality of what you are about to eat, you’re better off throwing it away rather than risking it. As AJ’s case proves, the consequences can be very serious.