Avoid illness from sack lunches

Elizabeth S. Reames  |  7/10/2008 11:54:51 PM

Back-to-School News Distributed 07/11/08

Whether you're going back to school as a student or a teacher, be extra careful in packing your take-along lunch if it sits a long time between the time you make it and eat it.

LSU AgCenter nutritionist Dr. Beth Reames warns about the danger of foodborne illnesses caused by bacteria, viruses, parasites or toxins that grow in food. You may suffer from upset stomach, vomiting, diarrhea and headache.

Reames says most cases of foodborne illness last only a couple of days but can be serious for young children, pregnant women, the elderly and the immune-compromised.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 76 million cases of foodborne illness occur in the United States each year. An estimated 325,000 of these cases lead to hospitalization and, for 5,000 people, the illness leads to death.

Reames offers safety guidelines that help keep foods safe:

– Start with clean hands and work area. Wash hands, utensils and work surfaces with hot, soapy water before preparing food. If hot, soapy water is not available, use antibacterial wipes or lotions.

– Keep cold foods cold. Cold foods need to be kept below 40 degrees to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria. If the temperature rises to 40 degrees or higher, enough bacteria can grow within the first two hours to cause sickness.

– Use insulated lunch boxes instead of paper bags. If using paper bags, double them to help insulate. Place an ice source in an airtight, sealed bag.

– Although various size ice packs are available, you can make your own pack by filling an airtight bag with water within 1 inch of the seal and freezing it.

– Freeze a juice drink and pack it with the lunch to help keep the lunch cold. The juice will be ready for drinking by lunchtime.

– If you choose to pack your own milk instead of buying it at school, keep it in a well-insulated thermos.

– If you do not have ice packs at your disposal, freeze your sandwich. Coarser bread, such as whole wheat, works best. White bread tends to become soggy. Toppings such as dressings, lettuce and tomato should be packed separately and put on the sandwich later to preserve their freshness.

– Keep hot foods hot. Hot foods need be kept above 140 degrees to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria. If the temperature drops to 140 degrees or below, enough bacteria can grow within the first two hours to cause sickness.

– Put hot foods in a thermos that has been pre-heated with hot water. Let the hot water sit for two to three minutes, pour it out and fill with the thermos with hot food. To keep the food hot as long as possible, do not open the thermos until mealtime.

– Pack your lunch in an insulated container. If you prefer to use brown paper bags, do not use used bags or grocery bags. These bags could already contain harmful bacteria.

– Clean lunch boxes, food containers and thermoses with hot, soapy water after each use.

If you can’t keep food at a safe temperature, Reames advises packing foods that do not need to be kept hot or cold. Options include peanut butter, pre-packaged fruits and preserved/canned meats and poultry that have not been opened or refrigerated.

Additional options include bread, dried fruit, single-serve juices (that have not been opened or refrigerated), nuts and crackers.

Still more options include fresh fruits and uncut vegetables, cereal, cookies, some cheese spreads and unopened cans of fruits.

The CDC offers additional sack lunch safety tips:

– Don't allow food to remain at room temperature for more than two hours (one hour in hot weather).

– Don’t judge the safety of food by its appearance and smell. Food is not always changed by the presence of bacteria. If your child brings his lunch home after school, the leftovers probably are not safe to eat. When in doubt, throw it out.

– Do not re-use airtight bags or food wraps.

– If a refrigerator is not available at school, keep the lunch in a cool, dry place, not in the sun.

– Refrigerate sandwiches that have been made the night before and place them directly into a cooled lunch bag in the morning.

– Before your child heads back to school, test the safety of the lunchbox. Pack a lunch normally and, at the designated lunchtime, measure the food temperature with a food thermometer to see if cold foods are below 40 degrees and hot foods are above 140 degrees.

For related nutrition topics, click on the Food and Health link on the LSU AgCenter home page at www.lsuagcenter.com. For local information and educational programs, contact an extension agent in your parish LSU AgCenter office.

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On the Internet: LSU AgCenter: www.lsuagcenter.com
Contact: Beth Reames at (225) 578-3929 or breames@agcenter.lsu.edu
Editor: Mark Claesgens at (225) 578-2939 or mclaesgens@agcenter.lsu.edu

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