Death-dealing meat: Food poisoning by bloody chicken

FOOD poisoning caused the death of a mum on holiday as a result of a few mouthfuls of uncooked chicken, while she was visiting the Greek island of Corfu with her husband and two children.

A bout of gastro caused blood clots to form throughout her body although she was fit and healthy – but her condition rapidly deteriorated 36 hours after dining at a hotel restaurant.

This event sends shivers up the spine of many of us. Yes – shivers and a scary feeling – not knowing enough about the killer bacteria and germs that can be lurking in meat not cooked properly and can literally kill us even from cooked meat that looks perfectly clean, presentable and delicious.

The worry is not that we do not want to be cautious or cannot take precautions – that is the least of the problems especially at home, where things are manageable and totally in our control.

However, what if we are eating out in a café, restaurant, fast-food joint or a takeaway commercial enterprise where meat may not have been cooked well. Do we stop eating out or go on trust that the management is doing the right thing?

This task is even harder in well regarded and “clean” establishments where the food preparation and presentation may look exceptionally “top notch” giving diners “a false sense of security”.

The issue often is not the “look and presentation” of the meat, but what may be lurking underneath the meat.

All meat needs to be cooked properly and for a sufficient length of time to kill all the bacteria and any fatal bugs.

This may not be such a great issue for red meat like fine cuts of beef steaks, where often good beef eaters love their meat cooked rare or rare to medium.

Not many beef-eaters like to eat well-done steak, just as well as beef red meat does not appear to harbour bacteria and germs inside the flesh except on the surface, where they get killed by cooking.

Rare steak, when cut through, have blood oozing out of the centre and good steak eaters, such as good wine connoisseurs, just love their bloody steaks – no pun intended – especially grilled with cracked peppers on top, together with a sunny-side fried runny egg perched on top of the steak.

Certain forms of raw meat are far less prone to pathogens, bacteria or viruses that can infect humans.

However, this is a treat that you definitely cannot afford with poultry and to major extent pork products.

A number of factors affect whether you can eat raw meat – such as preparation, hygienic conditions, the source of the meat, and species of the animal.

That’s why a rare steak, once the outside has been cooked, is perfectly safe to eat in most cases.

Furthermore, there are few pathogens that cross between beef-cattle and humans, decreasing the risk even further.

Raw pork isn’t something you hear about too often, but pork is more susceptible to trichinosis, a parasitic infection of the tissue, as well as worm cysts.

Pigs who grow up in pens and don’t have access to a normal omnivorous diet have a high risk for these illnesses, which can be passed on to humans.

Even the thought of raw chicken turns people’s stomachs in many cases, immediately conjuring up the word salmonella and the violent gastrointestinal days to follow.

It’s true that chickens tend to harbour a large amount of salmonella and E. coli, particularly when kept caged up without access to their normal diet.

Fish, on the other hand, is the great raw option for those who can’t stand the idea of waiting for something to cook.

Sashimi and sushi restaurants are wildly popular all over the world, and most people don’t bat an eye at eating raw fish. The reason for this is that most fish is caught in cold waters and then frozen before being served to you.

On the off-chance that there are parasites or cysts in the fish, they are killed during this process.

There is also a huge difference – evolutionarily speaking – between fish and mammals, and far fewer pathogens are able to “cross-over”.

Fish that you buy is usually not ground or mixed, which is common in beef, chicken, and pork (e.g., ground beef).

This means that one infected fish won’t be able to also infect large volumes of commercially sold fish as no grounding or mixing is done similar to ground beef.

In the example of the fatality caused by unknowingly biting into the chicken which appeared fully cooked to the “eye”, but upon biting was red and “bloody” inside.

Mrs Natalie Rawnsley, it appears got sick as the husband Stewart told the Westminster Coroner’s Court that the family ate dinner at a hotel buffet, resulting in this problem.

He said the hotel had two or three restaurants, and at the buffet, he and his sons had pasta, bread, and sausages while Mrs Rawnsley had a meal of chicken, salad, prawns, and vegetables.

“We were already at the table when Natalie came back with her food. Natalie started to eat hers and as she cut the chicken the chicken oozed red blood to which point I commented it looked bloody,” he told the inquest into her death.

“She got up took it back replaced the chicken with a different piece and came back and ate it.

“She had a few mouthfuls of the other piece of chicken.”

The newspaper Hertfordshire Mercury further reported Mr Rawnsley telling the coroner’s court that his wife started vomiting at 3am the next day.

She was diagnosed with gastro and Mr Rawnsley and his sons were advised to leave her so they did not catch the virus.

Mr Rawnsley came back to the room to check on his wife and sought a second opinion from a doctor as she was still ill.

She was taken to a medical centre near the hotel before being transported to Corfu hospital.

That night the husband was told to rush to the hospital, where he found his wife surrounded by a number of people.

“She was fully awake and aware and happy to see me, but obviously distressed and concerned,” Mr Rawnsley told the court.

“There was a pain in her legs and she also had a number of red blotches all over her.”

The Hertfordshire Mercury reports that the mother’s condition deteriorated and she died after her heart became weaker.

Infections expert Professor Sebastien Lucas told the inquest Mrs Rawnsley’s sickness turned deadly because she “had the wrong genes”.

“Assuming it is an E-Coli infection – coming from uncooked chicken this seems like a very reasonable theory,” he said.

“The point I also made in my report is how it escalates.

“There’s a tipping point when it starts producing. By definition, once it starts doing that, you are doomed.”

The coroner ruled E-Coli infection as the cause of death.

The lessons learnt from this extremely sad and traumatic loss of a loved mother and a wife, and a main member of the family unit whilst still on a great holiday from seemingly a very simple act of eating out, and selecting a piece of chicken which was bloody and undercooked; and the sad innocent act of just biting into a piece of chicken a number of times, and then being totally succumbed to the E-Coli virus – slowly dying whilst still sane, awake, aware and amongst loved ones – brings shivers up the spine of all of us.

A surely sad and tragic tale of diners beware; and all the lovely chefs and food handlers out there to please ensure that this does not happen to anyone else ever again, during your career, please.

This one act of calamity has turned the entire world upside down for Stewart, his lovely children, and many others in their network or relatives.

We all say R. I. P Natalie.

• Dr Sushil K Sharma BA MA MEng (RMIT) Ph.D. (Melbourne) is a former British Aerospace and Royal Saudi Air Force aviation meteorologist and is a WMO accredited Class 1 professional meteorologist.

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