In a Wisconsin State Journal OpEd last week, Brae Surgeoner and Ben Chapman said Wisconsin Assembly recently passed the aptly named Potluck Liberation Act, a law exempting community dinners from health inspection.
Patriotically, Rep. Barb Gronemus, D-Whitehall, stated, “To say you shouldn’t have a potluck is like saying you shouldn’t have a ballgame.”
Comparing dinners where the possibility of foodborne illness is a frightening reality to one of America’s much-loved pastimes is intriguing. Acquiring a salmonella infection from an improperly handled turkey would be kind of like standing in front of a Pedro Martinez fastball: The messy reaction in your pants would be similar.
We’re not saying you can’t have potlucks; just leave the umpires in the field — the health inspectors who make sure everybody plays by the rules. In this game we need to get along so it doesn’t leave a nasty and sometimes lethal taste in the mouths of players or spectators.
Umpires and inspectors alike are not there to control the game, just to ensure it is being played right.
In 1997, two elderly people died, more than 100 made a trip to the emergency room, and 700 more reported feeling ill after an annual church dinner of stuffed ham, turkey and fried oysters at Our Lady of the Wayside Parish in Chaptico, Md., population 100.
Tests showed that salmonella in the ham likely caused the illnesses. The nasty bugs that cause foodborne illness don’t distinguish between commercial and charitable food operations.
In September 2004, near Buffalo, N.Y., 28 confirmed cases of salmonella infection were reported following an annual community roast-beef dinner.
Volunteers were not trained in food service and “didn’t quite understand the importance of maintaining a hot or cold temperature,” investigators said.
The beef was roasted on spits. 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. Scrumptious — except that the sandwiches were being drenched with salmonella bacteria.
Interviews with attendees indicated about 1,500 of the 3,000 present were ill.
Such outbreaks are not unique, but having enough people actually report that they were sick is unusual. Most cases of foodborne illness go unreported.
Yet about one-in-four North Americans get sick from the food and water they consume every year. Potluck dinners, where food is prepared behind the closed doors of private homes and church kitchens, can be hazardous. Unlike a restaurant kitchen, there’s little control over how the food is prepared, stored, handled or transported.
Churches are beginning to self-regulate, using health department guidelines, because they don’t want to make people sick.
Sticking thermometers into food is an important part of every health inspector’s job. It saves lives. Food safety isn’t a game, but having the health umpires around to make sure things are running smoothly isn’t a bad thing.