Viral story about leftovers causing amputations only tells partial story

You may have seen stories about bad leftovers leading to multiple amputations, but that's not entirely accurate.
generic takeout food (Source: Storyblocks)

LINCOLN, Neb. (KLKN) – It’s an impressive-sounding story that’s been picked up by the national media. A young man in Massachusetts eats some bad takeout, feels sick, and when he goes to the hospital a few hours later, he ends up losing both legs and all ten fingers. A quick search on the internet turns up a dozen clickbait articles all about it. For a more scholarly view, you can read the report by the New England Journal of Medicine here.

Let’s start with the basics. Yes, there was a young man who ate leftovers, felt ill, and eventually had to have parts of his body removed, just as the other stories say. University of Nebraska-Lincoln Assistant Professor of Food Science and Technology Byron Chaves says the real story, however, is one of unrelated incidents and coincidental timing.

“We tend to assign illness to the last thing that we ate. Everybody does that. It’s a common situation,” he says. The same thing is being applied to this case almost everywhere you read about it.

However, “In the food safety microbiology community we don’t see this as foodborne,” says Chaves. “We see it as the person was intoxicated and that intoxication is what prompted other things.”

Intoxication, in this instance, doesn’t refer to drugs or alcohol, but a toxin of a different sort. Chaves believes it was most likely neisseria meningitidis, also known as meningococcus. It’s the same thing that causes meningitis. This time, it seems likely that it went into the college student’s blood.

The fact that this happened in a college setting is no accident, either. The young man was only partway through his meningococcal vaccination.

“Typically we see everybody that goes to college has to get a meningococcal vaccine because you’re going into congregations with lots and lots of different people,” Chaves points out.

You can put it all down to bad timing. Chaves believes, due to the timetable of everything the patient experienced, he’d already been exposed to meningococcus, which was already doing its work in the background when the young man also happened to eat some bad leftovers. The food almost certainly didn’t lead to amputations or any other issues, apart from the normal sickness you might get from bad food.

Of course, that’s not a license to stop practicing food safety, as there are some unpleasant things that can happen to you if you eat something that’s gone bad. If you need a refresher (and from the expert, no less), Chaves says of leftovers, “We want to put them in refrigeration within two hours, [and] eat them within four days of production.”

The moral of the story is to always take care of your food and yourself, but know that in this case, the food is most likely not behind the horrific outcome as it’s been implied to be.

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