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Sickness at potluck highlights food safety

DULUTH, Ga. (BP) — The potluck dinner is often seen as a treasured part of church life. It’s a welcomed stereotype because of the fellowship and good times that come with overeating highly caloric casseroles, side dishes, and various meats cooked in various ways. And that’s before the desserts, often enough of them to fill a row of folding tables stretching half a basketball court.

With those things, though, comes a real danger. A 54-year-old woman died, and others were hospitalized, from a possible case of botulism, reportedly linked to an Ohio church potluck in April.

“Poor hygiene,” says Georgia Baptist Convention (GBC) director of food services Minerva Small when asked what is often the biggest threat to getting sick after a potluck. “People simply don’t wash their hands enough.”

A big responsibility

Small, who trained at Le Cordon Bleu Culinary School in Tucker, says “In preparing the food, your life is literally in my hands.”

Every church group, mission team, seminar attendee, and administration and executive committee member who’s had a meal at the Missions and Ministry Center in Duluth since she arrived at the GBC nine years ago falls into that category. That also goes for her small group at Fairfield Baptist Church in Lithonia, where she’s a member, and those with the Tucker High School football team, for whom Small prepares the annual preseason cookout, kickoff dinner, pancake breakfast, and pregame meals when the Tigers play on Saturdays. Altogether, she estimates overseeing food preparation for around 10,000 people in 2014.

Her eyes go wide on realizing the number after doing the math. It also explains the intensity she brings to food prep safety, something she says is often overlooked at many church gatherings.

Small not only washes her hands constantly, but also the food cans themselves. “You don’t know where those have been or how long they sat on a dock somewhere,” she notes. “Rodents and insects carrying bacteria could’ve gone across them.”

Small remembers learning from her grandmother in her native Jamaica. “She taught us good habits (like washing up) are hard to break, but bad habits are harder. So when you’re making habits, make good ones so you won’t have to break them. If I didn’t practice that at home, I wouldn’t bring it [to work].”

To make her point, every worker under Small has to sign a server’s agreement outlining cleanliness on the job.

Keeping fellowship fun, safe … and tasty

In Ohio, public health officials have pointed to botulism as the likely cause of sickness that killed one woman and made 21 others sick. Specifically, its origins seem to have come from potato salad made from potatoes canned at home. On average, about 110 cases of botulism are reported in the U.S. annually, with a quarter of them being foodborne.

Food grown in your own garden, even organically, can bring a false sense of security, Small says. “Washing is still important because you don’t know if an animal has come along and gone to the bathroom nearby.”

A lot of people can their own vegetables at home, and although the overwhelming majority does so safely, those who use unsterilized instruments and practice poor hygiene, pose a danger to the unsuspecting potluck attendee. Many cases of mild food poisoning go unnoticed, she says, with those affected simply staying out of work a day or so or going to the doctor rather than reporting it.

The first suspect in a potluck dinner gone bad tends to be the potato salad, deviled eggs, or slaw left in the sun too long. While those are common causes, Small says, often the problem has come before in the preparation process. Still, such foods are the ones attendees need to pay close attention to in addition to meats not cooked thoroughly.

Such caution isn’t to take the fun out of a staple of church life, but on the contrary to ensure it.

“Today there is so much to be aware of in preparing food,” Small says. “There are gluten sensitivities and food allergies. You have to be aware of conditions such as celiac disease and how cross contamination occurs when serving utensils are passed from one dish to another. I don’t take these lightly.”