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Batter Up

24.feb.06, Brae Surgeoner and Ben Chapman, Commentary from the Food Safety Network

In September 2004, near Buffalo, New York, 28 confirmed cases of Salmonella infection were reported to the Erie County Department of Health following an annual community roast-beef dinner. Outbreak investigators found that volunteers were not trained in foodservice and “didn’t quite understand the importance of maintaining a hot or cold temperature.”
Turns out they really did not understand at all.

24.feb.06, Brae Surgeoner and Ben Chapman, Commentary from the Food Safety Network
Wisconsin's Assembly recently passed the aptly named Potluck Liberation Act, a law exempting community dinners from health inspection. Patriotically, Rep. Barb Gronemus stated, “To say you shouldn’t have a potluck is like saying you shouldn’t have a ballgame.”
Comparing dinners where the possibility of foodborne illness is a frightening reality to one of America’s much-loved pastimes is intriguing. Acquiring a Salmonella infection from an improperly handled turkey could be kind of like standing in front of a Pedro Martinez fastball; the likely messy-pants reaction would be similar.
We’re not saying you can’t still have potlucks; just leave the umpires in the field -- the health inspectors -- the folks that make sure everybody plays by the rules. And in this game we need to get along so it doesn’t leave a nasty and sometimes lethal taste in the mouths of any of the players or spectators.
Like health inspectors, a good umpire is there to make sure nothing really awful happens and that no one unintentionally cheats; a good umpire fades into the background. Umpires and inspectors alike are not there to control the game, just to ensure its being played right.
In 1997, in a tragic event that shouldn't be compared to a game, two elderly people died, more than 100 made a trip to the hospital emergency room, and 700 more reported feeling ill after partaking of an annual church dinner of stuffed ham, turkey and fried oysters at Our Lady of the Wayside Parish in Chaptico, Maryland – a town of only 100 residents.
Volunteers were said to have, “put their heart and soul into the dinner." But health officials determined this wasn’t the only thing in the dinner. Tests showed that Salmonella in the ham likely caused the illnesses.
Following the outbreak, Reverend John Stack, leader of the congregation, was quoted in the New York Times forecasting how the outbreak would impact next years dinner plans, “I don’t think anything will change. We will get through this, try to get over our devastation and move on.”
Except the nasty bugs that cause foodborne illness, don't distinguish between commercial and charitable food operations.
In September 2004, near Buffalo, New York, 28 confirmed cases of Salmonella infection were reported to the Erie County Department of Health following an annual community roast-beef dinner. Outbreak investigators found that volunteers were not trained in foodservice and “didn’t quite understand the importance of maintaining a hot or cold temperature.”
Turns out they really did not understand at all.
The beef was roasted on spits and the juices, collecting in a 5-gallon bucket at room temperature over the course of the day, was poured over the surface of ready-to-eat beef sandwiches. Scrumptious. Except that the sandwiches were being drenched with both flavorful juices and Salmonella bacteria that had multiplied throughout the day at room temperature. Interviews with attendees indicated that approximately 1,500 of the 3,000 who attended the event were ill.
These outbreaks are not unique in their occurrence.
They are however unique in that enough people actually reported that they were sick. Most cases of foodborne illness goes unreported and as a result, many people have no idea how common an occurrence it is. Some one-in-four North Americans get sick from the food and water they consume each and every year.
Potluck dinners, where food is prepared behind the closed doors of private homes and church kitchens, can be hazardous. Unlike a restaurant kitchen, there’s little control over how the food was prepared, stored handled or transported.
In Tennessee, health inspectors don’t check church kitchens. Yet weekly suppers are a popular tradition where as many as 400 people are reportedly served in a 90 minutes period -- which sounds like a restaurant. And in Tennessee church members admit that they are like a restaurant, “People could get sick here just like they could at anyplace else.” So it follows that churches are beginning to self-regulate using health department guidelines, because they don’t want to make people sick.
Sticking thermometers into food is an important part of every health inspector’s job. It may seem anal, but it’s a practice that saves lives. Food safety isn't a game, but having the health umpires around to make sure things are running smoothly isn't a bad thing.
Brae Surgeoner and Ben Chapman graduate students with the Food Safety Network at the University of Guelph, in Ontario, Canada.
Contact number: 785-317-0560
bsurgeon@uoguelph.ca
bchapman@uoguelph.ca