Commentary from the Food Safety Network, Douglas Powell and Ben Chapman
The death of 73-year-old Carolyn Hawkinson of Longville, Minn. is a painful reminder that food can kill, even when prepared with the best of intentions and under the most divine conditions.
Her death from E. coli O157:H7, and the sickening of at least 17 other people who shared a church supper in July also highlights the need for oversight of such events, and training for anyone who prepares food for others.
Food has always been a first step in building togetherness. Community gatherings around food awaken nostalgic feelings of the rural past — times when an entire town would get together monthly, eat, enjoy company and work together. Salem Lutheran Church in Longville, Minn. holds a monthly smorgasbord to welcome people to their community and foster this sense of kinship. In a town of 180, they routinely draw 300 diners.
Or they did.
A food handling or preparation mistake during the July 19, 2006 dinner culminated in Mrs. Hawkinson’s death Sunday after nearly a month in the hospital due to an E. coli O157:H7 infection. It is suspected that homemade meatballs were either improperly cooked, or they cross-contaminated salads and vegetables. Mrs. Hawkinson became ill two days after attending the event. Her funeral is being held in the very same church where the meal was served. Of the confirmed illnesses, nine have been hospitalized, two with serious complications.
Community dinners, like the Salem Lutheran monthly dinner, shouldn’t end — the sense of kinship they aim to create is vital. But it is necessary that food handlers understand their role in preparing and serving safe food because unfortunately, this isn’t the only example of community-type dinners resulting in illnesses.
On September 24, 2005, at least 50 people fell ill after eating a barbeque chicken dinner in rural Nova Scotia. The outbreak investigation revealed that well-intentioned organizers had erred when preparing the potato salad. Sloppy food handling and a lack of timely refrigeration at a safe temperature provided the ideal conditions for Staphylococcus aureus intoxication. Community volunteers at the event were so shaken up that they requested therapeutic debriefing and counseling.
In September 2004, near Buffalo, New York, an annual community roast-beef dinner resulted in 28 confirmed cases of Salmonella infection. Outbreak investigators found that volunteers were not trained in foodservice and “didn’t quite understand the importance of maintaining a hot or cold temperature.” The beef was roasted on spits and the juices, collecting in a 5-gallon bucket at room temperature over the course of the day, was poured over the surface of ready-to-eat beef sandwiches. Unfortunately, the sandwiches were being drenched with both flavorful juices and Salmonella bacteria that had multiplied throughout the day. Interviews with attendees indicated that approximately 1,500 of the 3,000 who attended the event were ill.
There have been at least 37 reported outbreaks of foodborne illness associated with homecooked products, community dinners and farmers’ markets in North America since 1973 (see http://www.foodsafetynetwork.ca/en/article-details.php?a=3&c=32&sc=419&id=890).
Yet there’s a push throughout North America to deregulate community dinners, farmers markets and homecooked products. With nostalgic folksiness, a hearty dollop of common sense, and soundbites like, “we’ve always done it this way and never made anyone sick,” politicians are ignoring the own advisors and undercutting their own public health inspectors by declaring such community-based events off-limits.
Regulation isn’t the complete answer, but it is part of the solution.
For example, to coach youth house league hockey in Ontario requires 16 hours of training. To open the doors behind the bench requires 4 hours of prevention services training To coach kids on a travel team requires more.
Shouldn’t some .minimal requirement be established for those preparing food?
Cross- contamination, handwashing and improper temperatures are all common themes in these outbreaks — the very same infractions that restaurant operators and employees are reminded of during training sessions, and subjected to during inspections. Some jurisdictions — such as the city of Fort Worth, Texas — place so much importance on teaching these lessons that they have mandatory training for all food handlers. If they can do it why can’t others?
The World Health Organization estimates that up to 30 per cent of citizens in so-called developed countries will get sick from the food and water they consume each and every year.
Markets, church dinners and other community-based events featuring food are not inherently safer or more dangerous than any other food establishment. Those making the food either know about dangerous germs and takes steps to reduce the risk, or they don’t.
Mrs. Hawkinson’s death is a reminder that food handlers — whether professional or volunteer — need to know about these germs.
Douglas Powell is scientific director of the Food Safety Network at Kansas State University, and Ben Chapman is a graduate student with FSN at the University of Guelph in Ontario.