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Food poisoning: a real threat during summer months

by Tech. Sgt. Kelly Lacross
6th Aerospace Medical Squadron

Food poisoning is always a potential threat. With many summer parties and food being prepared well in advance of the guests' arrival, food poisoning becomes even a greater risk and a major party spoiler.

Foodborne illness can be caused by many factors from germs and viruses to chemicals leaching into the food or drink. However, germs are the most common cause of foodborne illness.

There are two major ways germs can cause a problem. First, the germ can grow in the food producing a toxin (a chemical that is irritating to our intestines and body) that can make us ill or even cause death. Botulism is an occasional cause of death for people canning home grown vegetables. This germ is still around and sporadically occurs in commercially or home canned mushrooms and other products.

Staphylococcus aureus (commonly called Staph) is another germ that produces toxins causing serious illness. Once Staph grows in the food, its toxin cannot be destroyed by cooking. Consequently, the way to keep Staph from tainting the food is to keep food dishes out of the danger zone. The danger zone is the temperature range that lets germs grow rapidly in food. If a party dish is to be kept chilled; it should be kept below 41°F. Germs do not like to grow when it is too cold or too hot. Therefore, warm food dishes should be kept above 135° F.

Temperatures can be monitored easily at home with a thermometer in the refrigerator and freezer, and a chef's thermometer to check temperatures of hot food items on the stove or table. Both thermometers can be purchased at the Base Exchange as well as many grocery stores and discount outlets.

During your preparation time period, the refrigerator door is going to be opened and closed many times. The normal setting used to keep your refrigerator chilled may be well above the setting needed for a major summer party. Again, a refrigerator thermometer placed near the unit's door can take the guesswork out of what setting is needed.

The second way germs can affect us is through foodborne infections. Salmonella is a germ that can grow in the intestine and make people extremely sick. There has been much information in the news about Salmonella and its association with chickens and eggs. That summer barbecued chicken or grilled turkey leg falls into this category. This germ does not produce a toxin like Staph. Consequently, with proper cooking, Salmonella is killed and its potential danger is eliminated.

Remember that the cutting boards, sinks, and other utensils, as well as hands, are not going into the oven, so proper cleanup of all surfaces and helpers should be accomplished before moving on to preparing that salad or other summer items. The cheese ball prepared by unwashed hands would be a wonderful breeding ground for Salmonella to grow and infect an unsuspecting guest.

Chemicals can sometimes leach into food or drink, resulting in acute illness. At parties, larger than normal containers are needed to serve that summer punch. Always use glass or plastic containers. Do not use zinc-lined containers to serve any high acid punches like citrus drinks. The zinc can leach into the punch and cause major intestinal disturbances.

Remember, no matter how big the summer get-together, it can be safe from foodborne illness by keeping the prepared foods below 41°F or above 135°F and washing utensils and hands between preparation of each food item. Specific questions about food preparation, food safety or foodborne illness can be answered by Public Health at 827-960.

The temperature between 41°F and 135°F is where germs can grow rapidly.

Chilled food dishes - Keep below 41 °F.

Hot food dishes - Keep above 135 °F.

A Chef's thermometer can help monitor for proper temperatures.

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