Richard Bogren, Reames, Elizabeth S.
Don’t let unsafe food masquerade at your Mardi Gras celebration. Food that hasn’t been prepared following recommended food safety guidelines usually appears safe because it looks smells and tastes fine, but eating it may lead to food-borne illness, says LSU AgCenter nutritionist Dr. Beth Reames.
“Many people think they have the flu or a 24-hour virus when they’re actually suffering from food poisoning,” Reames says. “The symptoms are often the same – stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Other symptoms include headaches, chills and fever.”
Food-borne illness is more likely to occur in the very young, the elderly, the chronically ill, those with weak immune systems and pregnant women, she adds. It also is more likely to lead to serious illness in these groups.
Food-handling safety risks are more common than most people think. Food can be contaminated by the food handler or unclean surroundings.
“Not washing hands is one of the most common ways to contaminate foods and spread viruses,” Reames says. “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. Take plenty of hand-sanitizing towelettes to clean your hands before touching food.”
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 food-borne illness grow in the temperature danger zone between 40 and 140 degrees.
“Foods that sit out for more than two hours at room temperature – or one hour if the room or outdoor temperature is over 90 degrees – can support bacteria growth,” Reames says. “Food contaminated with bacteria can make you sick without looking, smelling or tasting bad.”
The LSU AgCenter nutritionist advises keeping perishable foods on ice.
“Ice packs in various sizes and shapes are available,” she says. “If your budget is tight, create your own ice packs. Fill an airtight bag with water within 1 inch of the seal and freeze it, or make your own ice blocks by freezing water in milk cartons. You also can freeze individual cartons of juice or bottles of water that will help keep foods cold and be available for drinking after they thaw.”
Perishable foods such as fried chicken, potato salad, ham, beef, fish or chicken sandwiches, deviled eggs or egg sandwiches need to be kept cold. Reames suggests freezing meat sandwiches the night before the festivities. Hamburgers and hot dogs must be kept cold before cooking and kept hot afterward.
Foods that don’t require refrigeration include 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.
“If you depend on street vendors for food, check to see if their concession stands have the facilities to keep their hamburgers and hot dogs refrigerated before cooking and hot after cooking,” Reames says. “Look at how clean their equipment appears and if the handlers’ practices are sanitary.”
Reames says four easy steps – clean, separate, cook and chill – can help you enjoy the festivities without suffering from food-borne illnesses.
– Keep foods, hands and equipment clean.
– Keep ready-to-eat foods separate from raw meat, poultry and seafood.
– Cook foods to recommended temperatures.
– Keep perishable foods hot – above 140 degrees – or cold – below 40 degrees.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), each year in the United States an estimated 76 million cases of food-borne illness occur. An estimated 325,000 of these cases lead to hospitalization, and, for 5,000 people, the illness leads to death. The government defines food-borne illness as the result of eating food that is contaminated with harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites or toxins.
Additional information about food safety is available from the LSU AgCenter office in your parish.Rick Bogren