Food Safety

I am - actually, all three of us are - recovering from a case of food poisoning. This was the first time that all three of us were sick at the same time. It was also the first time that we were sick with a hoard of other people who shared the same symptoms: gripes, followed by diarrhea.

It wasn't until we had made it through a particularly bad night that we found out what had caused it. Until then, we wondered whether it could have been the lemonade we bought from those adorable little girls on our ride home. No! It must have been the bakarvadi that we demolished in one sitting. Or was it the mock bhel I made by mixing chopped onions doused in lemon juice, with Khatta Meetha, Bhujia Sev and Dal Biji. That Dal Biji is potent enough to give us acid reflux if we eat more than a couple of spoonfuls. Or was it the dinner we were eating - kababs and saag paneer - when it struck? It couldn't have been dinner as we were still in the process of ingesting it. When the "me too" emails started trickling in the next morning, we found out that misery does indeed have a lot of company.

We still don't know which particular dish at the community gathering caused so many of us to take ill. Some people have suggested that perhaps it was some of the store-bought dairy products that were used that may have been contaminated. Others pointed fingers at the wheat tortillas from the Mexican store. Usually when such things occur, meat is under most suspicion but this was a completely vegetarian meal.

A series of phone calls to friends around the country led me to a horrifying discovery: food safety is taken with a pinch of salt. One word for those who do: DON'T.

Do not store food in your garage.
When people cook for potlucks or for large community gatherings, they find that they don't have enough room in their refrigerator to store the food. Many times the quantity is so large that the food is cooked the day before. There is nothing wrong with that as long as it is refrigerated promptly. A garage is not a refrigerator, especially not in fall. Food must be refrigerated in a controlled environment at 40F or below.

Do not handle cooked food with your bare hands.
It is a common practice to scoop the last of the rice or pulao from a pot with bare hands when transferring to a container or even to a serving dish. Please! Even if you wash your hands, you run the risk of transferring bacteria and germs to cooked food which will not be heated to a high enough temperature again. Use a spoon. The same holds for the grains of rice that remain stuck to the serving spoon. Use another spoon. When it comes to the last of dals and curries, too, don't use your bare hands. If you must scrape off every last bit, use a spatula.

Chutneys, especially the cilantro-ginger-lemon kind, are not cooked after they have their fun in the blender. Use a spoon or spatula.

Handling food is the easiest way to transfer illnesses to others. You may be a carrier of a self-limiting GI virus and you may, unknowingly, give it as a parting gift to everyone who eats the food you bring to the party. Just don't do it.

Do not leave food at room temperature for more than 2 hours.
In summer or on hot days, the outer limit is one hour.

Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold.
If you are going to be carrying hot food to where the large gathering is at, invest in an insulated carrier to keep the food hot. Otherwise, carry it in a cooler on ice or frozen gel ice packs. When you reheat it, bring dals and curries to a boil.

Wash your hands and sanitize them before serving food at a gathering.

Use serving spoons or other serving utensils.
Do not serve with your bare hands even if you followed the previous tip! Use food service gloves, if possible.

Ensure that the food, plates, cutlery and cups are covered until they are used.
Keep food covered and watch for flies. Ensure that the serving tables are far from open trash cans. If you must touch the unused plates, cups or cutlery, do so in an area where no food will be placed.

Other good stuff:

  1. Do not cross-contaminate.
  2. Wash your hands frequently with soap and in hot water.
  3. If you're sick, opt out of cooking for your gathering. Believe me, your friends would rather go hungry than contract your illness.
  4. Tie your hair back or wear those goofy hair nets.
  5. Wash your ingredients well. Even fruits that have a thick outer skin like bananas, lemons and oranges.
  6. Thaw frozen meat in the refrigerator, in the microwave or under cold running water.
  7. Do not use a damp smelly sponge to wash your dishes. Wash your sponge and your dish scrub in the upper rack of your dishwasher every couple of days. Or sanitize your sponge - taking the required precaution - in your microwave.

More food safety tips from:
Consumers Union Food Safety Tips
Safety tips for meat, poultry and fish
Gateway to Food Safety Info from the US Government
US FDA's Food Safety Tips for Healthy Holidays

Remaining hydrated is the key to recovery from food poisoning. If diarrhea does not stop, consider taking over-the-counter medication like Imodium or calling your doctor. Never take a chance with young children - always call your doctor if diarrhea persists. If vomitting is one of the symptoms, then that makes hydration even more difficult. In such cases, it makes more sense to suck on ice chips or to drink only a couple of spoonfuls, at a time, of fluids like Gatorade or apple juice or even plain water. I am not a doctor so always call your physician or follow your instincts and go to the ER if you have to.

Do not take food safety lightly. The consequences of your negligence or lack of awareness could send someone to hospital.


Jen Yu said...

Food safety was a major issue for me during chemo b/c I was immuno-compromised. I'm really sorry that your whole family got so sick. It suuuuucks. Are you starting to feel better or is it still raging on?

Unknown said...

hey manisha ,hope u guys are feeling better now, keep hydrating well till u get back to normal alright....take care...

Rajesh &Shankari said...

Yikes!Take care Manisha.

Anita said...

Just a few precautions can protect us... Hope you are feeling better.

Drinking tea are you? Helps with the non-heated surroundings as well...

Anjali Koli said...

This is awful. Hope your health improves all 3 of you. I hate eating at gathering for this reason and am always scared. It happens so often here as people are really careless and I find myself avoiding food at large gatherings. I too had a bout recently had to wake up in the middle of the night and figured out it was the dairy product that was the culprit. So if you are in a situation where you have to eat at a gathering and you are eating vegetarian then dairy products are potential threat for food poisoning. My father managed to escape as he avoids dairy products at dinner time.

Pelicano said...

I'm sorry to hear of this! I've had food-poisoning a few times too, but it's been awhile! My last ones were from fast-food restaurants and you'd think I'd know better by now!

Sour-salty foods are generally a safer bet; I totally avoid anything with mayo, white sauce or sweet sauces at large gatherings, but you're right: anything can be contaminated by just one person- cook or guest- not washing well and handling the food!

I hope all of you recover quickly!

Nupur said...

Sorry to hear poisoning feels so miserable. Did you consider calling your local health department and having them undertake an outbreak investigation? They are trained to do detective work of this sort to find the offending food and its source. Hope everyone feels better soon.

Finla said...

This is a real informative post.
Hope you all are feeling better.
Something I have always in my handbag is imodium and headache pills.

Shilpa said... sorry to learn about food poisoning Manisha.I hope you all are doing well now.

Unknown said...

Hope you guys are feeling better...

Priya said...

Hope you guys are feeling better now Manisha, was wondering why there were no photos on your stream.
We might make a few concessions while cooking at home but when its for a gathering, its better to be extra extra cautious.
Get well soon! hugs

Mrs. K said...

Hope you are all feeling better now.
I have a friend who buys her turkey day before thanksgiving. After applying the marinade, she keeps the turkey in a roasting pan and cover with a foil, and put it in the oven!! Remember oven is off..and it's not for cooking. It stays in the oven until she turns on the oven next day(noon I think, so the turkey will be ready for dinner). Basically, her turkey sits in the oven for more than 12 hours at room temperature! She says if you keep the oven light on during this time, the heat from the light helps the marinade reach deep inside the turkey! I tried to convince her that the longer marination must be done in the refrigerator. But she is like..I have been doing this for years..and never had any problem...
and she invites guests too..

Unknown said...

Get well soon!!..It made me thinking how in old times also people used to take care of these small small things..
Sowalyatala swaypak :)

musical said...

Food stroage in basement! wow!

Hope you all are feeling better now.


Bharti said...

Thanks for posting all that info. This is going to sound crazy but Apple Cider vinegar is a remedy for food poisoning. The hubby and I had food poisoning on the very day of my bro's wedding! We were SICK. A couple of doses (a cup of warm water,honey and 2 tablespoons of ACV), and we were able to make it to the reception at night. The stuff stinks bad though. I hope all of you feel better soon.

Nirmala said...

Please do take care. These things happen when you eat "old food". Refregiration and reheating creates large rooms for such bacteria. Serving fresh food even though they are simple is far better than serving an elaborate luxurious meal cooked a day before. A simple home remedy we used to follow at home during these times is eat 9 pepper corns (chew it and swallow) which could clear off any undigested food in the stomach. If the pepper corns could be wrapped up in a beetle leaf (like a beeda) its better.

Indian Food Rocks said...

Thanks for all the good vibes! We're all doing well as are the other folks affected. We thank our stars that it was something we could literally flush out of our system without any serious side effects.

Jen, it totally sucked but thank goodness that we are all fine now. The part that bothered me the most is that many children were affected.

Shabari, yup! Back to normal!

Shankari, got to go back there in another 2 weeks for the Diwali function :-D

Anita, tea did not help. Warm liquids trigger an intestinal response which - believe me - I was done with!

Anjali, we found out what the culprit was. It wasn't anything dairy. The dal had spoiled but did not taste spoiled. I assumed that it had urad dal in it. Now that I know more, it probably did not.

Pelicano, we really don't know how or why at this point. The dish was heated to a boiling point before it was transported but then it sat out for at least 3 hours. :-(

Nupur, believe me, I did! And after I spoke to my sister the doc, even more so. The problem however was that the food was homecooked and is called 'prasad.' There were therefore many sensitivites at play here. We now know the offending source. Here's the part that truly sucks: there were a few who had suggested that the dal might be spoiled but it was served anyway.

Happy Cook, I used to be like that. I carried the whole pharmacy with me wherever I went. I have scaled down quite a bit now and I am lucky if I have a band-aid in my purse! Sometimes I am lucky if I have my purse at all! Last week I went all the way into Boulder without my wallet. I was lucky I didn't get pulled over for anything cos I didn't have my DL on me!

Shilpa, yes, just don't think I will forget this easily!

Chandrika, yes, thanks! A lesson learned though.

Priya, I just did not have the enthusiasm to do much. I take care not to cross-contaminate and I am particularly careful when handling meat. It doesn't hurt to be extra cautious.

RP, yikes! She's really pushing it there! She's lucky that they haven't fallen foul of e-coli or other bacterial infections. Some people are more immune than others so it might be that in her case. But I know what your answer will be if she invites you over for Thansgiving dinner! No, thank you!

Cooldeep, that was what came to my mind, too. There was a reason for the morning routine: ablutions, followed by a bath and only then did the women enter the kitchen. But I have seen this 'sowala' business taken so literally and we're better off not going there! But like most traditions, it has a sound basis. What it morphs into is another can of worms!

Musy, maybe basement also. Most unfinished basements are dark and cold, making them ideal to store roots through the winter. But cooked food? Not!

Bharti, that did sound a little bizarre but I looked it up and there are people who swear by it. Apparently it helps with weight loss also. Ahem. I might clamp my nose and want to try that!

Nirmala, it is not always possible to serve food that has just been made. In the ideal world, yes. And it is even more difficult to do so for a community gathering where people travel over 30 miles to reach their destination, carrying food with them. Food safety can be ensured if it is properly and promptly refrigerated and then transported in an appropriate manner. The other thing is to ensure that those travelling longer distances carry food that is not as perishable, like rotis and parathas.

Bharti said...

I have used for weight loss Manisha. It does work. But mostly I use it after gym- just one teaspoon in water, it's refreshing and keeps the inside clean. I like the organic kind.

Rachna said...

great tips which we wish we all followed, are you better now?