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Food poisoning more likely at big dinner parties

FRIDAY, Nov. 9, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- An invitation to a dinner party also could be an invitation to food poisoning, a British study reveals.

A review of infectious intestinal disease outbreaks in England and Wales shows that food poisoning was much more likely when the host cooked for a large group, the researchers say. The main culprit usually was salmonella, the bug most commonly associated with eggs and poultry.

"Our major conclusion is that these outbreaks appear to occur when individuals are catering for larger numbers than they are used to," says lead study author Iain Gillespie, a clinical scientist at the Communicable Disease Surveillance Centre in London. "This indicates that people are making more mistakes with their food safety because they are unfamiliar with the kind of logistics a party entails or because they are working with larger volumes of food."

Althea Zanecosky, a Philadelphia dietitian and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, says she's not surprised by the finding.

During a party or "during the holidays, we let food sit out for longer periods of times, and that's probably the main culprit," Zanecosky says. "Food should be refrigerated within two hours after it's cooked. Once it gets to room temperature, that's when the bacteria begin to party."

Americans generally don't need to worry too much about salmonella in eggs, she says.

"The concern for raw eggs is over-inflated in this country. There's probably one egg out of all the eggs you encounter in a lifetime that would have salmonella," she says.

But poultry is another story altogether.

"Oh, it's pretty common in poultry. Studies have shown that as much as 20 percent of poultry that's tested carries salmonella, and that's pretty high," Zanecosky says.

The British researchers became interested in the topic after a conference on the role of kitchen implements in food poisoning, Gillespie says. "We thought we'd look at our outbreak data base to see if we could get another perspective on food poisoning in the home," he says.

The researchers analyzed data on roughly 4,600 outbreaks of intestinal infections, which resulted in 205 people being admitted to hospitals between 1992 and 1998. Of the incidents, 226 were traced to people's homes, the study says.

The risk of being hospitalized if you ate food at someone's house was higher than if you consumed something at a restaurant or institution, Gillespie says.

About 85 percent of the intestinal diseases was caused by food, and 88 percent of the food poisonings happened at a social function -- "say a barbecue or a dinner party," Gillespie says. "And salmonella was the major bug in the food-borne outbreaks. In 85 percent of the outbreaks where the mode of transportation was thought to be food, the poisoning was caused by salmonella."

He says poultry and eggs were the common carrier, but salmonella also can be found in water, soil, insects, factory surfaces, kitchen surfaces, animal feces, raw meats, raw seafood and other places. The study is reported in the November British Medical Journal.

Within six to 48 hours of becoming infected with salmonella, victims usually experience nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, fever and headache. A small number of people infected with salmonella develop Reiter's syndrome, a disease with symptoms that include joint pain, eye irritation and painful urination.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recorded 2,751 outbreaks of food-borne diseases in the United States between 1993 and 1997, resulting in 86,058 people becoming ill. Between 1985 and 1998, salmonella outbreaks numbered 796, leading to 28,689 people becoming ill. Of those, 2,839 people were hospitalized and 79 died.

What To Do

Zanecosky says people tend to be lax about food safety at parties, because their attention is elsewhere, but that can be dangerous.

"If you're the hostess at a party, you really need to focus on food safety," she says.

For starters, remember to wash your hands and kitchen surfaces after handling raw poultry. "Use Sterno or other types of heating trays to keep food hot that's meant to be hot, and use ice on food that's meant to be cold," she suggests.

"Or you can try to serve food that is at less risk of bacterial contamination," she says. "Use fresh fruits and veggies with dips that are not at risk from spoilage. Serve cheese and nuts, which can sit out for hours."

For more on food safety in the home, visit the Home Food Safety Web page, sponsored by the American Dietetic Association.

And for information on salmonella, check the bacteria's entry in the Bad Bug Book of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

SOURCES: Interviews with Iain Gillespie, clinical scientist, Communicable Disease Surveillance Centre, Public Health Laboratory Service, London; Althea Zanecosky, registered dietitian, Philadelphia; November 2001 British Medical Journal
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