Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Food Safety For Real: ‘Everyone is a high risk customer’

September is National Food Safety Education Month and the theme this year is: "High-Risk Customers: Serve Your Fare with Extra Care." That got me thinking.

The story and important information on the nationwide egg recall that follows my column heightens my concern.

National statistics say that in our very advanced nation, the United States of America,there are more than 76 million reported foodborne illnesses each year which lead to approximately 325,000 hospitalizations resulting in 5,000 – 10,000 deaths each year. I personally believe the numbers are much higher as it makes me wonder how many more foodborne illnesses go unreported each year. I like the number I heard years ago from the CDC which reported that worldwide, one out of three people annually get a foodborne illness. Sounds more accurate to me.

High Risk Populations are those with lowered immune systems; the very young (0-4 years of age), the elderly, pregnant women, and those with illnesses that compromise their immune systems, like AIDS or cancer. Within these populations, we can intuitively believe they might be more susceptible to getting really sick, but sometimes you can’t identify their risk factor just by looking at a person. My advice to my students is to “always act like everyone you are serving is at high risk and to always behave as if you were sick and didn’t know it yet.” Bottom Line: High Risk

Populations do not wear stickers on their forehead to announce they are a sick person …be careful.

The truth is that anyone who gets sick with a foodborne illness is going to be miserable and I am going to give those sick people sympathy. We’ve all eaten something and gotten an upset stomach afterwards and maybe you’ve had to run to the toilet with diarrhea. That happens and many of us are fortunate enough to deal effectively with annoying ailments. But, I do get scared if someone in a high risk population gets sick. Why? I believe that sometimes we joke about and become very blasé about foodborne illness, but the reality is that it’s very serious stuff.

I personally have first-hand experience working with the repercussions of a foodborne illness. I worked for six years at MEDEX Global Solutions, a traveler’s assistance company that manages cases for those having medical emergencies around the world. I would direct them to seek better care or just to help them get home to receive treatment. I remember one case that I worked on that really upset me. There was a family, husband and wife with three daughters in the Dominican Republic for a joyous occasion; one of the daughters was getting married there. The husband/father got gastroenteritis (which I have learned is a fancy word for upset stomach or a foodborne illness that you don’t  know the name of). A few days later with symptoms of diarrhea and vomiting, the wife found him on the hotel room floor … suffering from a heart attack.

I worked on the case by connecting our Spanish speaking doctor to confirm with the doctor there that the patient was stable and able to be transported for emergency care back in the US. I arranged all logistics for air ambulance transfer with the medical team and arranged his readmission into Miami for the required surgery. I made the travel arrangements for the wife and a daughter as well. Unfortunately, the patient died in
Miami. I was gutted. The family was so wonderful and it was just such a sad scenario all around.

The deceased had been in his very early 70s with no previous history of cardiac illness.  Foodborne illness is not something to be laughed at as to “ha ha, someone has the runs.” It’s for real!  When someone gets a foodborne illness and really no matter the illness name, the symptoms are going to be pretty much the same. The body works to get rid of the contamination two ways, up or down. This can result in dehydration. When a body is dehydrated, the heart has to work harder which can affect one’s pulse rate and blood pressure. This is what happened to the deceased, resulting in a heart attack in a person with no previous history of cardiac problems.

September is National Food Safety Education Month and the theme this year is: "High-Risk Customers: Serve Your Fare with Extra Care." I think it’s great to identify High-Risk Customers and realize why extra care should be given to these populations, but my motto: “Act like everyone is in the High Risk Zone,” might go a long way.

Juliet Bodinetz-Rich is the executive director of Bilingual Hospitality Training Solutions and has over 25 years industry and training experience. Her team of instructors’ specialty is food safety, alcohol training and ServSafe training in English or in Spanish and writing HACCP Plans in the Baltimore and Washington D.C. Metro Area. www.bilingualhospitality. com, or 443-838-7561.