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Church barbecue outbreak is a reminder to be careful

By Kathleen Purvis
kpurvis@charlotteobserver.com
Kathleen Purvis
Kathleen Purvis is the Food Editor for The Charlotte Observer.

Sometimes you don’t even have to get sick to feel sick. And boy, did I feel sick for the people at Sandy Plains Baptist Church in Shelby after their annual barbecue in September.

Big barbecues are one of the Carolinas’ great traditions. Church barbecues, Scout barbecues, school barbecues. I hit the brakes at the sight of a parking lot full of smoking cookers and people in long aprons.

So I read the news with sadness: A 50-year-old event, 5,000 people attending. Then: 104 people sick, and 14 people hospitalized.

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services hasn’t finished its report yet. A cause is still unknown.

And you know every volunteer feels just as bad, if not worse, than the people who got sick.

Figuring out what caused it is tough and sometimes impossible. There’s so much to piece together, figuring out who ate what, who touched what, who brought what.

“In so many of our food outbreak investigations, it is rare when we can point to a source,” says Julie Henry, a spokesperson for DHHS.

In a big event, not every person gets sick. Some people are more vulnerable and get sicker. Genetics, age – very young or very old – and physical condition play a part.

It’s hard to even find out how many people got sick. Some may not want to raise a hand and be counted, especially in a social situation like a church.

Barbecue isn’t the only culprit, of course. This is the season for big feeds – fish fries, bake sales, spaghetti suppers. Then there’s that big dinner we call Thanksgiving.

All of them put us in unfamiliar roles, using equipment we don’t know or cooking foods we don’t handle often.

“You get into this weird cultural situation,” says Ben Chapman, the food safety specialist for N.C. Cooperative Extension and N.C. State University. “It’s territorial.”

You might have someone who doesn’t have the knowledge or experience – or someone who says they know how to handle food, but their information isn’t up to date.

There’s also the whole touchiness issue around food safety. Boy, have I been there. You see something you know isn’t quite right, but you don’t want to be a spoil sport or hurt someone’s feelings. So you look the other way.

A big cause of problems often isn’t even the food, says Chapman. It may be a sick volunteer or restaurant worker.

“If someone is sick or is just getting over it, they shouldn’t be food-handling at all,” Chapman says. “Outbreak after outbreak, we see someone who wanted to volunteer and showed up (sick).”

After the Shelby outbreak, Chapman put together a food-safety information sheet with the main tips for how to be safe. Find it at www.foodsafetyinfosheets.org.

And consider asking your county extension service or health department for advice.

“I think people are afraid of the health department,” Chapman admits. “But that proactive discussion can save an outbreak of 130 people.”

Join the food conversation at Kathleen Purvis’ blog I’ll Bite, at obsbite.blogspot.com, or follow her on Twitter, @kathleenpurvis.
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