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Published April 02, 2010, 12:00 AM

Keep hot foods hot to avoid getting sick

The aroma of burning food should have been my first clue. We were hungry, though, and we decided to continue past the doorway of the restaurant.

By: Julie Garden-Robinson, INFORUM

The aroma of burning food should have been my first clue. We were hungry, though, and we decided to continue past the doorway of the restaurant.

We sat down with our orders of sandwiches with soup or salad, and I dipped a spoon into my cheesy vegetable soup. Before I could say a word, my 11-year-old daughter announced, “This soup isn’t even warm!”

“You’re right,” I remarked. My husband nodded in agreement as he tasted the soup.

I would guess the soup was at a temperature less than 100 degrees, compared with the requirement for restaurants in most states to serve hot food at 135 degrees or more.

I mentally reviewed the amount of risk we might be taking by eating cool soup.

Were we putting ourselves at risk for the wrath of Clostridium perfringens, sometimes called the “cafeteria bacteria”?

Perfringens poisoning is among the most commonly reported foodborne illnesses in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 10,000 cases occur annually. Older adults and young children are most at risk, especially since food served in nursing homes and schools has been linked to the outbreaks.

Perfringens poisoning often is associated with protein-rich foods, such as gravies, meats and sauces, held on cafeteria serving lines where they were temperature-abused.

I took a look at my bowl of creamy soup and recognized it to be the type of soup that arrives at the restaurant frozen. All the establishment needs to do is warm it.

I made some guesses about the handling of the soup. I estimated that the workers’ shift would have started around 10 a.m., and they would have begun warming the soup at that time. Since it was noon, about two hours had passed.

Food service rules recommend that premade food should be reheated to 165 degrees within two hours. Some commercially processed foods, such as cheese sticks and deep-fried vegetables, have lower temperature guidelines for cooking.

Slow reheating at low temperatures can allow bacteria, and potentially their toxins, a chance to grow. On the other hand, reheating food too rapidly could reduce the quality of certain types of sauces.

Food service rules from the Food and Drug Administration allow a longer time at “danger zone” temperatures than U.S. Department of Agriculture consumer rules.

Consumer rules generally have a built-in cushion of safety.

Then I thought about potential symptoms of eating hot-held food that wasn’t being held at the proper temperature.

Perfringens poisoning symptoms include intense abdominal cramps and diarrhea, which show up eight to 22 hours after consuming the food. Most of the time the illness is over in 24 hours, but less severe symptoms can continue for a couple of weeks.

Despite this unappetizing recollection, I continued eating my sandwich, which was pretty good, although a little dry. I kept having more soup to help the sandwich slide down more easily. Soon my soup was gone.

So I was living, or rather eating, on the edge. In hindsight, I should have taken action and returned the soup to the counter. However, there was a long line of people.

Our wise daughter found a plastic cover that fit on her soup. She decided to reheat it at home. For the next few hours, I was hoping we had dodged the foodborne illness bullet. Turns out, we were fine and probably lucky.

I will give my friends at the Health Department a call to check on that restaurant’s holding temperatures.

As spring events, including graduations, backyard barbecues and other celebrations, come into full swing, remember to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Here are the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s temperature recommendations for consumers:

- Hold cooked or reheated food above 140 F; place in hot-holding equipment, such as chafing dishes, slow cookers and warming trays.

- Reheat previously prepared food to 165 F, using a stove, oven or microwave oven.

- Place cold food in containers on ice.

- Hold cold foods at or below 40 F.

To learn more about food handling tips when cooking for a crowd, see “Cooking for Groups” at www.ag.ndsu.edu/pubs/yf/foods/fn585-1.htm.

Here’s a saucy side dish you can make at home.


Veggies in Cheese Sauce

1 16-ounce package frozen vegetables of choice (such as broccoli, or peas and

carrots)

2 tbsp. margarine or butter

2 tbsp. flour

1 cup low-fat milk

¼ tsp. salt

½ cup cheddar cheese, grated

Cook vegetables as directed on package. Melt the margarine or butter in a saucepan. Add flour until blended and bubbly. Slowly add the milk and cook until thickened. Stir in the cheese and heat until the cheese melts. Drain vegetables and add to cheese sauce.

Makes six servings (½ cup each). Each serving has 142 calories, 7.4 grams (g) of fat, 14.6 g of carbohydrate and 2.6 g of fiber.


Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., L.R.D., is a North Dakota State University Extension Service food and nutrition specialist and associate professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences.

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