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.
  • Seek treatment as necessary. If the victim is in an "at risk" group, seek medical care immediately. Likewise, if symptoms persist or are severe (such as bloody diarrhea, excessive nausea and vomiting, or high temperature), call your doctor.
  • Call the local health department if the suspect food was served at a large gathering, from a restaurant or other foodservice facility, or if it is a commercial product.
  • Call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline if the suspect food is a USDA-inspected product and you have all the packaging.

Fight Bacteria

When preparing for your special event, remember that there may be an invisible enemy ready to strike. It's called bacteria and it can make you sick. But by following four simple steps, you have the power to fight bacteria and keep your food safe.

  • Clean. Wash hands and surfaces often.
  • Separate. Don't cross contaminate.
  • Cook. Cook to proper temperatures.
  • Chill. Refrigerate promptly.

You can find more information about fighting bacteria at www.fightbac.org.

When You Plan

Select a reliable person to be in charge. The person-in-charge should contact the local health department for information about the rules and regulations governing preparation and serving of food for groups. The person-in-charge should provide instructions to the volunteers, answer questions, and oversee the preparation, service, and cleanup of the event.

Make sure you have the right equipment, including cutting boards, utensils, food thermometers, cookware, shallow containers for storage, soap, and paper towels. For outdoor events, make sure you have a source of clean water. If none is available at the site, bring water for cleaning of hands, utensils, and food thermometers. Develop a plan for transporting equipment for cleanup after the event.

Plan ahead to ensure that there will be adequate storage space in the refrigerator and freezer.

When You Shop

  • Do not purchase canned goods that are dented, leaking, bulging, or rusted. These are the warning signs that dangerous bacteria may be growing in the can.
  • Separate raw meat, poultry, and seafood from other foods in your grocery-shopping cart and in your refrigerator.
  • Buy cold foods last. Plan to drive directly home from the grocery store. You may want to take a cooler with ice or frozen gel packs for perishables. Always refrigerate perishable food within 2 hours. Refrigerate within 1 hour when the temperature is above 90 °F.
  • Make sure the temperature in the refrigerator is 40 °F or below and 0 °F or below in the freezer. Check these temperatures with a refrigerator/freezer thermometer.
  • Refrigerate or freeze perishables, prepared foods, and leftovers within 2 hours of shopping or preparing. Place raw meat, poultry, and seafood in containers in the refrigerator to prevent their juices from dripping on other foods. Raw juices may contain harmful bacteria. Refer to the cold storage chart for recommended storage times in the refrigerator or freezer.

When You Prepare Food

Wash hands and surfaces often. Bacteria can be spread throughout the kitchen and get onto cutting boards, utensils, and counter tops. To prevent this:

  • Wash hands with soap and warm water before and after handling food, and after using the bathroom, changing diapers, or handling pets.
  • Use paper towels or clean cloths to wipe up kitchen surfaces or spills. Wash cloths often in the hot cycle of your washing machine.
  • Wash cutting boards, dishes, utensils, and counter tops with hot, soapy water after preparing each food item and before you go on to the next item. A solution of 1 tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach in 1 gallon of water may be used to sanitize washed surfaces and utensils.

When cutting boards are used:

  • Always use a clean cutting board.
  • Use one cutting board for fresh produce and a separate one for raw meat, poultry, and seafood.
  • Once cutting boards become excessively worn or develop hard-to-clean grooves, you should replace them.

Never defrost food at room temperature. To properly defrost food items, thaw your food in the refrigerator. You may also thaw food in the microwave, but be sure to cook the food immediately. Food may also be thawed in cold water. Be sure that the sink or container that holds food is clean before submerging food. Two methods may be used when thawing: 1) Completely submerge an airtight-wrapped package, and change the water every 30 minutes. 2) Completely submerge an airtight-wrapped food in constantly running cold water.

Refrigerate or cook food immediately after thawed. Marinades may be used to tenderize or add flavor to food. When using marinades:

  • Always marinate food in the refrigerator, not on the counter.
  • Use food-grade plastic, stainless steel, or glass containers to marinate food.
  • Sauce that is used to marinate raw meat, poultry, fish, or seafood should not be used on cooked foods unless it is boiled before applying.
  • Never reuse marinades for other foods.
  • Discard any leftover batter, or breading, after it has come in contact with raw food.

Wash fruits and vegetables with cold water before use. Thick-skinned produce may be scrubbed with a brush. Do not use soap.

Food should not be tasted until it reaches a safe internal temperature. Use a clean utensil each time you taste food, otherwise you may contaminate the food.

Do not use a plate that previously held raw meat, poultry, or seafood unless the plate has first been washed in hot, soapy water.

—Source: adapted from "Cooking for Groups: A Volunteer's Guide to Food Safety," by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service.

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