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Watch those office refrigerators for food-borne diseases

What’s lurking inside office refrigerators? Employees don’t exactly fight over the task of cleaning them, and they often become the repository of fuzzy leftover odds and ends that no one wants. But, jokes aside, are there any health threats from food-borne diseases emanating from the workplace fridge?

Dr. Richard O’Callaghan, chairman and professor of the University Medical Center Microbiology Department, says people aren’t dying because they ate at the office.

“The first thing that pops into my mind is that food will get mold. People will see it and not eat it,” he said. “Hopefully, people will use common sense and not eat mold because some rare molds are dangerous. We’re still alive because we use common sense.”

However, if someone does eat mold, most of it won’t cause harm but the food will taste bad causing the eater to spit it out.

Annette Biksey, a registered nurse and an infection control specialist at Memorial Hospital in Gulfport, says everyone needs to pay attention to food and how it’s handled.

“You’d be surprised at what can be found in the refrigerator, especially when it is used by a group of people,” she said. “It’s a good idea to cover all food items and label with the person’s name and the date of preparation.”

As a general rule, most perishable foods should be discarded if not consumed within three days, she says. Someone in the office should go through periodically to throw out foods that are beyond the expiration date and any foods that do not appear to be safe. In addition, whether at home or at the office, Biksey says every refrigerator should be wiped with soap and water on a regular basis to keep it clean.

“We check our office refrigerator periodically. Most of us are nurses and aware of the dangers of food-borne diseases,” she said. “Also, they know I check it pretty carefully and they’re good about keeping things covered.”

O’Callaghan says he’s concerned that employees get sick when other people bring food to share that may be contaminated. “You don’t know how that food has been prepared. Then leftovers are stored in an office refrigerator that may not be as cold as those at home,” he said. “Also, I worry about people dipping into some large container with a spoon they’ve put in their mouths. That’s how you get food poisoning.”

He says staphylococcus, often the cause of food poisoning, is an organism that lives in the front part of the nose in approximately 30% of the general population. These people are carriers and he estimates that 50% to 60% of healthcare providers may be carriers.

“I tell medical students that if they eat staphylococcus for lunch, they’ll vomit for supper,” he added.

Remember these tips

The microbiology professor shares some tips for food shared and stored at workplaces:

• If food is to be shared, be particularly careful about hygiene.

• Use common sense; don’t stick a spoon back into a container if it’s been in your mouth.

• Don’t use fingers to put food on trays. Meats and protein-rich foods are very prone to the staphylococcus organism.

• Inspect the refrigerator to make sure food stays cold once it’s refrigerated.

• Make sure you treat food with respect once it’s refrigerated.

Biksey agrees that the chill factor is important for refrigerators. “Bacteria grow most rapidly in the unsafe temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees, so it’s key to keep foods out of this temperature range,” she said. “And since cold temperatures keep most harmful bacteria from growing and multiplying, be sure to refrigerate foods quickly.”

She adds these tips.

• Refrigerate or freeze perishables, prepared food and leftovers within two hours of purchase or preparation or within one hour if the temperature is above 90 degrees.

• Never defrost food at room temperature. Defrosting in the refrigerator is the safest method. For quick thawing, submerge food in cold water in airtight packaging or thaw in the microwave if cooking immediately.

• Separate large amounts of leftovers into small, shallow containers in the refrigerator for quicker cooking.

• Don’t over stuff the refrigerator. Cold air must circulate to keep food safe.

According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, infectious diseases spread through food and beverages are a common, distressing and sometimes life-threatening problem for millions of people in the United States and around the world.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 76 million people suffer food borne illnesses each year in this country, accounting for 325,000 hospitalizations and more than 5,000 deaths.

Food-borne diseases are extremely costly too. Estimates are that the yearly cost is $5 billion to $6 billion in direct medical expenses and lost productivity.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

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