Food code changes stress sanitation

by Emily Dalnodar

Food safety week has come and gone, but food officials say food awareness must remain.
And they hope a proposed revision of state health codes from the Minnesota Department of Health to protect food safety will help prevent food-related sickness.
The new code proposes combining the responsibility of food practices regulation of both the Minnesota departments of Agriculture and Health along with local health agencies. If uncontested, the revision will go into effect June 15.
Together the agencies would address problems in the food industry that cause food-borne illnesses.
Commonly called food poisoning, food-borne illness can be caused by three things: bacteria, viruses or outside contaminants like pesticides.
Bacteria and viruses are the most common agents causing illness. Although they work in different ways, they cause some of the same symptoms.
Food-related sickness is commonly contracted when food handlers don’t properly wash their hands after using the bathroom, said Kent Rees, University environmental hygiene officer.
In his 25 years at the University, Rees has only identified two food-borne illness outbreaks, both occurring within a couple months of each other during the 1970s. But it can be difficult to label an outbreak for several reasons.
To classify an outbreak, at least two people must call Rees to report eating the same food at the same place with the same symptoms at the same general time.
The amount of bacteria needed to cause illness varies from person to person. Some people are more susceptible to bacteria than others, Rees said. So one person can get sick, while others are fine. Or one person will get sick after one day and throw up and someone else will get sick in three days and have diarrhea.
Aramark Corp., the University’s food service provider, takes special precautions to prevent food-borne illnesses from occurring, said Cheryl Nelson, food service director of the food production center. Nelson attends Safe Serve classes every two years for safe food handling certification.
Under the proposed new code, food service managers will take a bigger role in keeping food free from contamination in such areas as treatment of sick employees, sanitation and food handling.
Nelson says she is already meticulous in handling the University’s food. She makes sandwiches and other assorted goods found in campus vending machines.
And when her employees are sick?
“They go home,” Nelson said.
But most food-borne illnesses start in the home, officials say.
To keep household practices safe, people should wash their hands after using the rest room, and wash all food — especially fruits and vegetables, which can still have pesticide residue on them.
Temperature has a big impact in food safety too. People should keep the refrigerator at 40 degrees or lower and consult a cookbook for proper heating temperatures when cooking. Each food has a different heating guide to cook off bacteria.
Cold foods like sub sandwiches or salads have an increased risk for bacteria or virus contact, said Valerie Deneen, an epidemiologist at the Minnesota Environmental Health Department. Uncooked foods don’t have the extra protection of heat that kills bacteria and viruses, she said.
Salad bars and buffets are suspect, too, because many people who might not have washed their hands come into contact with the food items.
Vomiting, diarrhea and sometimes a headache and fever will accompany food illnesses. The symptoms usually last 24 hours but sometimes longer. In extreme cases, people need hospitalization.
Many people experience this illness as a “stomach flu,” Deneen said. But the flu is short for influenza, which is a respiratory illness. In actuality the stomach flu is just old fashioned food-borne illness, she said.
After ingesting the food, not much will alleviate the symptoms. But taking some measures can prevent a case from becoming extreme.
Drinking plenty of fluids — not caffeine or alcohol — will help, said Dr. Edward Ehlinger, director of Boynton Health Service. When the body cleanses itself from toxins by vomiting or diarrhea, it leaves itself very dehydrated, he said. This is why most people end up in the hospital.
Otherwise, non-aspirin pain relievers can help with headaches and fever.