A Primer on Food-Borne Illness

A Primer on Food-Borne Illness

Make sure your group members are aware of what is safe, and what is not.

Note: This article has been excerpted from the SmallGroups.com training download called Keeping Small Groups Safe and Legal. It was originally adapted to inform churches about food safety during potlucks and other gatherings, but the information is equally pertinent for small groups that share snacks and meals together.

When considering an event with food at your church, be sure that you have considered the following areas of food safety for groups. The goal of this information is to help volunteers prepare and serve food safely for large groups, such as family reunions, church dinners, and community gatherings. This food may be prepared at the volunteer's home and brought to the event, or prepared and served at the gathering. If you need additional information, and to ensure that all state regulations or recommendations for food preparation and service are followed, please contact your local or state health department.

The information provided in this guide does not reflect recommendations in the FDA Food Code, or your state's food code. Food service personnel should contact their local or state health department for information on the rules and regulations governing the preparation of food in retail or institutional settings. Food that is mishandled can cause very serious consequences for all, especially infants, young children, older adults, pregnant women, and people with weakened immune systems. For this reason, it is important that volunteers be especially careful when preparing and serving food to large groups.

What Is Food-borne Illness?

Food-borne illness often presents itself as flu-like symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or fever, so many people may not recognize the illness is caused by bacteria or other pathogens in food. Thousands of types of bacteria are naturally present in our environment. Not all bacteria cause disease in humans. For example, some bacteria are used beneficially in making cheese and yogurt.

Bacteria that cause disease are called pathogens. When certain pathogens enter the food supply, they can cause food-borne illness. Millions of cases of food-borne illness occur each year. Most cases of food-borne illness can be prevented. Proper cooking or processing of food destroys bacteria.

Age and physical condition place some persons at higher risk than others, no matter what type of bacteria is implicated. Infants and young children, pregnant women, and older adults are at greatest risk for food-borne illness, as are all people with weakened immune systems caused by cancer treatment, AIDS, diabetes, kidney disease, and organ transplants. Some persons may become ill after ingesting only a few harmful bacteria; others may remain symptom free after ingesting thousands.

How Bacteria Get in Food

Bacteria may be present on products when you purchase them. Plastic-wrapped boneless chicken and ground meat, for example, were once part of live chickens or cattle. Raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs are not sterile. Neither is fresh produce such as lettuce, tomatoes, sprouts, and melons.

Foods, including safely cooked, ready-to-eat foods, can become cross-contaminated with bacteria transferred from raw products, meat juices, or other contaminated products, or from food handlers with poor personal hygiene.

In Case of Suspected Food-borne Illness

Follow these general guidelines:

  • Preserve the evidence. If a portion of the suspect food is available, wrap it securely, mark "DANGER," and freeze it. Save all the packaging materials, such as cans or cartons. Write down the food type, the date, other identifying marks on the package, the time consumed, and when the onset of symptoms occurred. Save any identical unopened products.

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