Fried Rice Syndrome: A Disturbing Reminder About the Dangers of Bacillus Cereus

Fried Rice Syndrome: A Disturbing Reminder About the Dangers of Bacillus Cereus

While B. cereus, the bacterium associated with fried rice syndrome, is commonly found in several starchy foods, rice is a significant carrier.

In recent times, fried rice syndrome has become a trending concern, especially after a TikTok video highlighted a tragic incident from 2008 involving a 20-year-old student. This syndrome refers to food poisoning caused by a bacterium called Bacillus cereus. As detailed in the National Library of Medicine, the individual encountered symptoms like headache, abdominal pain, nausea and diarrhea within half an hour of eating, and tragically passed away that night.

Another alarming instance from March 2021 involved a man in England who faced similar consequences after eating leftover lo mein noodles. Though he survived, the repercussions led to multiple amputations.

Fried rice syndrome primarily stems from B. cereus, a bacterium prevalent in the environment. It poses a significant threat when introduced to specific foods that are not adequately stored post-cooking. Such foods commonly include starchy items like rice and pasta, but even cooked vegetables and meats can be vulnerable.

Related: Foodborne Illness from Raw Milk On the Rise

One distinct characteristic of B. cereus is its ability to produce spores — cells exceptionally resistant to heat. Therefore, while reheating might eliminate other bacteria, it might not be effective against B. cereus in food. When these spores find the right conditions, they can grow and produce the toxins responsible for fried rice syndrome.

So, what are the origins of this ailment and how can one steer clear of it? Lawrence Goodridge, a food safety professor at the University of Guelph, told People magazine that while B. cereus is commonly found in several starchy foods, he emphasized that rice is a significant carrier. The bacteria release toxins when they grow in foods like rice, leading to symptoms like gastrointestinal pain.

There are two kinds of B. cereus infections: one leading to diarrhea and the other causing vomiting. Although most cases resolve within days, vulnerable groups like children or those with existing health conditions might need medical attention. Even though B. cereus isn’t the leading cause of gastrointestinal diseases, outranked by others like E. coli and Salmonella, it’s essential to remain vigilant against fried rice syndrome.

It’s also important to note that extreme reactions like the ones highlighted on TikTok are rare. Typically, individuals affected by fried rice syndrome suffer from headaches and abdominal discomfort. Severe repercussions, like amputations or even death, happen in a minimal number of cases.

In fact, illnesses caused by B. cereus are less frequent when compared to other foodborne pathogens. Goodridge noted that annually, around 63,000 cases are reported in the US and about 36,000 in Canada, a relatively small number in the grand scheme of foodborne illnesses.

To guard against fried rice syndrome, ensure leftovers are either adequately heated up. Minimize the duration they are exposed to temperatures conducive for toxin growth, which lies between fridge temperature and 60 degrees celsius. Store leftovers in the fridge promptly post-cooking, and consider dividing large quantities into smaller portions for faster cooling. 

Adhering to the two hour/four hour rule is beneficial: if food remains outside for up to two hours, it can be refrigerated, but if it’s out longer, it should be consumed immediately with remaining portions discarded. When food has been out for over four hours, the risk of fried rice syndrome grows. 

Lastly, basic food hygiene practices, like washing hands before food prep and avoiding cross-contamination, are fundamental in avoiding fried rice syndrome and other food-related illnesses.