stomachfluPreparing a world-class dinner for a group of family and friends is one of the world's most stressful yet fulfilling activities.  After all the planning, work and expense, the reward is to watch the happy diners consume every last bite of your Grade A dishes.  But what if an hour or so after all the plates have been cleared away, while most of your guests are relaxing and sharing stories over cocktails in the living room, they begin excusing themselves.  Some head home, but most use your bathroom.  And the most dreaded sound of all emanates from your bathroom - that of relentless retching. 

It seems like a long time ago that having two bathrooms seemed sufficient.  Right now you could use those 2 plus another 22! 

You feel sick yourself, and not just because of the dreadful way the evening has turned out.  You've got to find a bathroom quick, but they're all taken.  The worst has happened.  This sudden turn of events just can't be attributed to a stomach flu that's going around. Food poisoning!!!  And from food you served just a short time ago.

There are many different sources of food poisoning, but they can be broken down into four main groups:  bacteria (e coli, botulism, campylobacter, shigella, listeria, staphylococcus aureus), viruses (norovirus, rotavirus, Hepatits A and E), parasites (trichinosis, toxoplasma) and toxins (such as is present in certain types of mushrooms).  We are all familiar with the symptoms of gastroenteritis (inflammation of the stomach and intestines): abdominal cramps, diarrhea, vomiting.  Add to this fever, aches and pains in various places, and you have the recipe for a miserable patient.

Most often, we do not feel the effects of food poisoning immediately.  In fact the incubation period can last a few days.  The longer the period between exposure and the arrival of symptoms, the more difficult it becomes to determine the source.  Some bacterias, for example, don't produce toxins (enterotoxins) until they reach the human intestinal tract some time after the food has been consumed.  These toxins in turn cause inflammation of the gastro tract, leading to the symptoms we know all too well.  But this process can take a while.

Unfortunately for our cook, one of her dishes was contaminated by staphylococcus aureus bacteria. Staph bacteria is common in our environment, and on the human body, but when it enters some foods, the bacteria grows and multiplies and produces toxins at an alarming rate. This is especially true of foods that are allowed to sit at room temperature for more than an hour or two (cut this time in half during the hot summer months).  Food items with creamy salad dressings, mayo, dairy products (sandwiches, salads, puddings, cream-filled pastries, custards) and sliced meats make especially effective mediums for staph bacterial toxins. 

Our cook now knows that it was a mistake to put her creamy mac and cheese salad that was prepared four hours before the actual dinner in such a huge bowl that it couldn't possibly fit into her small fridge.  It became a breeding ground for staph bacteria toxins.  While the busy cook prepared all of her many dishes, the bacterial toxins in her salad continued to multiply exponentially.   

Fortunately most people recover fairly quickly from staph bacteria infections.  But this isn't true of all food poisonings.  While most resolve on their own, some instances do require doctor intervention, especially if dehydration, blood in the stool, fever are present or if vomiting and/or diarrhea last more than 72 hours.  Treatment for botulism (the most deadly of bacterial infections) includes the administration of an antitoxin.  This bacteria generally grows in improperly sealed canned foods (watch out for bulging or leaking cans).  Salmonella (another bacteria) poisoning may have long-term effects by producing arthritis-like symptoms, usually starting 3-4 weeks after the initial infection.

How to avoid such an unhappy end to an otherwise beautifully prepared dinner?  Hand-washing is the number one defense.  Bacteria such as staph can live on our bodies, even in acne or hangnails.  The last thing we want to do is transfer it to the food we are preparing.  Store foods at the appropriate temperature - foods that are meant to be kept hot should be stored hot, and foods that should be cold (below 40 F or 4.44 C) should be stored cold (like our toxic mac and cheese salad).  Cook meats to their recommended internal temperatures (not to what the cook instinctively feels should be all right) - use a meat thermometer with a chart.  Leftovers should be refrigerated promptly.  Avoid cross contamination by carefully cleaning surfaces and utensils after working with one type of food (for example, raw chicken) and before starting to work with the next (the delectable cream puffs).  Most raw meats that have been allowed to thaw should not be refrozen.  Thoroughly wash raw fruits and vegetables. 

Most food prep precautions are common sense, but when we are rushing, we sometimes lose our connection with what we know to be true.


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