Elizabeth S. Reames, Merrill, Thomas A.
LSU AgCenter nutritionist Dr. Beth Reames says following food safety practices can help to ensure you don’t suffer the consequences of foodborne illnesses this Mardi Gras season.
"You really don’t want food poisoning to be a memento of the Mardi Gras season," the food safety expert advised. "By following some simple practices, you can enjoy the festivities without suffering from foodborne illnesses."
Reames says many people often think they have the flu or a 24-hour virus when they actually are suffering from food poisoning.
That’s because the symptoms often are the same – stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Other symptoms include headaches, chills and fever.
"These are not the sort of thing you want to have during Carnival season or any other time," Reames said. "Make sure your memories are of beautiful floats, exciting parades, time spent with family and other celebrations rather than illness."
Foodborne illness can stem from a variety of causes, but most often it comes from improper preparation, handling or storage of food. The basic rules of making sure preparation surfaces are clean, washing your hands before preparing food or eating it and keeping hot foods hot and cold foods cold go a long way in prevention of such illnesses, the experts say.
Reames also adds that that the very young, the elderly, the chronically ill, those with weak immune systems and pregnant women are more at risk of getting sick from a foodborne illness. It’s also more likely to lead to serious problems in these groups.
As for how such illnesses come about, the LSU AgCenter expert says in some cases, bacteria grow and produce a toxin in the food before it is eaten. This occurs with staph food poisoning.
"When this happens, you usually will get sick within a short time – in one to four hours," she said.
In other cases, the bacteria can grow in the food and reproduce in the body, too. When that’s the case, symptoms usually appear within 6-12 hours, but it can take longer for illness to occur.
The LSU AgCenter expert stresses food can be contaminated by the food handler or by unclean surroundings.
"Not washing hands is one of the most common ways to contaminate foods and spread viruses," Reames said. "Of course, trying to keep hands clean in a carnival atmosphere, when you are reaching for beads and trinkets from dirty streets and using unsanitary restrooms is almost impossible."
She recommends taking plenty of moist towelettes, baby wipes or antibacterial hand gels with you to clean your hands before touching food.
The nutritionist also points out that while people faithfully pack their beverages on ice, they often leave food, like fried chicken, in the original box unrefrigerated for several hours or even all day.
"Bacteria that cause foodborne illnesses grow in the temperature danger zone between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit," Reames said, stressing, "You have to keep in mind that food contaminated with bacteria can make you sick without looking, smelling or tasting bad."
Keep perishable foods on ice, the food safety specialist recommends.
"Ice packs in various sizes and shapes are available, but if your budget is tight, create your own ice packs," Reames advised. "You can do that by filling an air-tight bag with water within 1 inch of the seal and then freezing it. Or make your own ice blocks by freezing water in milk cartons."
Reames says you also can freeze individual cartons of juice or bottles of water that will help keep foods cold and be available for drinking after thawing.
The LSU AgCenter food safety expert says foods like fried chicken, potato salad, deviled eggs or sandwiches made from ham, beef, fish, chicken or eggs need to be kept cold.
She also points out that hamburgers and hot dogs must be kept cold before cooking and kept hot afterward.
"One way to do it is to freeze meat sandwiches the night before the festivities," Reames says. "That will help them to stay at a safe temperature a little longer, and you can eat them right when they thaw."
Foods that don’t require refrigeration include king cake, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, hard cheeses, unopened canned meats or fish, fresh fruits and vegetables, cookies, crackers, chips, breads, fruit pies and fruit juices.
Reames also says if you depend on street vendors for food, you should check to see if their concession stands have the facilities to keep their hamburgers and hot dogs refrigerated before cooking and hot after cooking. Also, look at how clean their equipment appears and if the handlers’ practices are sanitary, she advises.
"Safe food centers around three basic principles," Reames says. "Keep food, hands and equipment clean. Keep hot foods hot – above 140 degrees Fahrenheit – and keep cold foods cold – below 40 degrees F."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), each year the United States has an estimated 76 million cases of foodborne illness. About 325,000 of these cases lead to hospitalization, and for 5,000 people, the illnesses lead to death. The government defines foodborne illness as the result of eating food that is contaminated with harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites or toxins.
For additional information about food safety, contact an extension agent in your parish LSU AgCenter office or visit www.lsuagcenter.com.