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Sickness at Ohio potluck exemplifies safety in food preparation

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DULUTH — Not long ago a Georgia Baptist Convention employee entered the kitchen at the Missions and Ministry Center and quickly proceeded to wash his hands in the sink just past the doorway. The ingrained step of personal hygiene could be attributed to his upbringing, but also to the witnessed reprimands by GBC executive chef Minerva Small on previous offenders who hadn’t washed, or simply hadn’t done so promptly enough for her liking.

The employee? Executive Director J. Robert White, her boss.

The potluck dinner is a treasured – no hyperbole there – 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 as many various ways. That’s before one even gets to the desserts, enough of them to fill a row of folding tables stretching half a basketball court.

With those things, though, comes a very real danger as shown in a recent story where one person died following an Ohio church potluck.

A big responsibility

“In preparing the food, your life is literally in my hands,” says Small, who trained at Le Cordon Bleu Culinary School in Tucker. 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 (such as the Corky Kell Classic this fall). 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.

“Poor hygiene,” she says quickly when asked the biggest threat to getting sick after a potluck. “People simply don’t wash their hands enough.”

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

“In preparing the food, your life is literally in my hands.”

Just as many Georgians receive food tips from older relatives, 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, says Small. “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, again, 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 insure it.

“Today there is so much to be aware of in preparing food,” Small emphasizes. “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.”

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