Community dinner food safety: it’s what the volunteers do, not where they do it

Here’s a letter to the editor I just sent in response to today’s editorial in the South Coast Standard-Times. The editorial deals with the denial of a permit for the Men Who Cook fundraiser due to inadequate kitchens.

Community gatherings around food awaken nostalgic feelings of the rural past — times when an entire town would get together monthly, eat, enjoy company and work together. The Men Who Cook fundraiser seems like it’s just that, an event created 20 years ago to promote community building, not spread foodborne illness (OUR VIEW: Taking food safety too far, February 22, 2008).
Despite the sense of kinship and best intentions, there have been at least 37 reported outbreaks of foodborne illness associated with homecooked products and community dinners in North America since 1973 (
In 1997, two elderly people died, more than 100 made a trip to the emergency room, and 700 more reported feeling ill after an annual church dinner of stuffed ham, turkey and fried oysters at Our Lady of the Wayside Parish in Chaptico, Md., population 100.
Tests showed that salmonella in the ham likely caused the illnesses. The nasty bugs that cause foodborne illness don’t distinguish between commercial and charitable food operations.
In September 2004, near Buffalo, N.Y., 28 confirmed cases of salmonella infection were reported following an annual community roast-beef dinner. Volunteers were not trained in food service and "didn’t quite understand the importance of maintaining a hot or cold temperature," investigators said. The beef was roasted on spits. The juices, collecting in a 5-gallon bucket at room temperature over the course of the day, was poured over the surface of ready-to-eat beef sandwiches. Scrumptious — except that the sandwiches were being drenched with salmonella bacteria. Interviews with attendees indicated about 1,500 of the 3,000 present were ill.
Community potluck dinners, where food is prepared behind the closed doors of private homes and church kitchens, can be hazardous. Unlike a restaurant kitchen, which is visited and approved by health inspectors, there’s little control over how the food is prepared, stored, handled or transported.
It’s possible to produce food safely in homes and non-commercial kitchens to continue these important community-building functions, but a strong (not adversarial) relationship between event organizers, home chefs and the health department is necessary. What is more important than the location of food preparation is knowing that the dedicated volunteers play by the rules when it comes to food safety.

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About Ben Chapman

Dr. Ben Chapman is a professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University. As a teenager, a Saturday afternoon viewing of the classic cable movie, Outbreak, sparked his interest in pathogens and public health. With the goal of less foodborne illness, his group designs, implements, and evaluates food safety strategies, messages, and media from farm-to-fork. Through reality-based research, Chapman investigates behaviors and creates interventions aimed at amateur and professional food handlers, managers, and organizational decision-makers; the gate keepers of safe food. Ben co-hosts a biweekly podcast called Food Safety Talk and tries to further engage folks online through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and, maybe not surprisingly, Pinterest. Follow on Twitter @benjaminchapman.