Foodborne Illness

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Spring is almost here! “Springtime” refers to the season, and broadly to ideas of rebirth, renewal and regrowth. Robin Williams wrote, Spring is nature’s way of saying, “Let’s party!”  With this season comes family reunions, barbecues, and other community or social events.

These events are meant to be joyous occasions, however, community events, such as wedding receptions, church picnics, and fundraisers are common sources of foodborne illness outbreaks. Community dinners can be great fundraisers but because they may be held at temporary sites and staffed by volunteers, food handling precautions are needed.

Each year, in the United States foodborne infections cause millions of illnesses and thousands of deaths. Most infections go undiagnosed and unreported. Consuming contaminated foods or beverages causes foodborne illness. There are more than 250 different foodborne illnesses that have been described. Most of these illnesses are infections, caused by a variety of bacteria, viruses, and parasites that can be foodborne.

We read stories every year like, the 125 illnesses linked to a barbeque plate fundraiser prepared by volunteers, likely contained salmonella. Fourteen individuals who ate the food were hospitalized with symptoms including abdominal cramping, diarrhea and vomiting. Over 100 participants of a swimming competition suffered from gastrointestinal illness symptoms including diarrhea and stomach pains. Health investigators determined that affected participants had eaten beef stew served during a common meal. Investigators found that kitchen staff had kept the stew at room temperature hours prior to serving the stew.

We live in a microbial world, and there are many opportunities for food to become contaminated as it is produced and prepared. Don’t be a source of foodborne illness yourself.

A few simple precautions can reduce the risk of foodborne illness:

  • Wash your hands with soap and water before preparing food.
  • Avoid preparing food for others if you yourself have a diarrheal illness.
  • Changing a baby’s diaper while preparing food is a bad idea that can easily spread illness.

 Proper food handling tips to reduce the risk of foodborne illness:

  •  Cook – foods to recommended temperature-to kill bacteria. Know the safe temperature to cook food and check with a digital, tip sensitive thermometer

For example, ground beef should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 °F.

  • If you are holding food – have the proper tools available, such as chafing dishes with a heat source to keep hot foods above 135°F, if service is more than four hours after preparation. Hold cold foods below 41° F.
  • Separate – Avoid cross-contamination between raw foods and ready to eat foods, and the utensils used to prepare those foods. Wash hands, utensils, and cutting boards after they have been in contact with raw meat or poultry, and before they touch another food. Put cooked meat on a clean platter, rather back on one that held the raw meat.
  • Clean – Rinse fresh fruits and vegetables in running tap water to remove visible dirt. Remove and discard the outermost leaves of a head of lettuce or cabbage, because bacteria can grow well on the cut surface of fruit or vegetables, be careful not to contaminate these foods while slicing them up on the cutting board, and avoid leaving cut produce at room temperature for many hours. Practice good personal hygiene and sanitation, and exclude those who are ill from preparing food.
  • Chill – Refrigerate leftovers promptly. Bacteria can grow quickly at room temperature, so refrigerate leftover foods if they are not going to be eaten within 4 hours. Large volumes of food will cool more quickly if they are divided into several shallow containers for refrigeration.

For more information on food safety, contact Shirley Smith, Extension Agent, Family and Consumer Sciences, at the North Carolina Cooperative Extension, Hoke County Center, at (910) 875-2162 or e-mail