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Is your church's food safe?

Recent tragedies refocus attention on food safety

In the past month, how many times has your ministry's activities involved food? Most likely, several: potlucks, food for shut-ins, picnics, youth pizza nights, staff lunches. Of those, how many times have you asked yourself: Is our food safe?

Tragic examples grab headlines

Food poisoning affects one in six Americans each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). While most cases are more inconvenience than anything, some can be very serious and even fatal. Two recent examples, at home and abroad:

  • At least 36 sickened at Alabama funeral. At least 36 people have fallen ill — some hospitalized in serious condition — after attending a funeral and meal on July 6 at Eastern Star Baptist Church in York, Alabama. Investigations are ongoing, but initial tests on the food provided are positive for Salmonella bacteria.

  • 23 schoolchildren dead in India, dozens more sickened. 23 schoolchildren in India died after being fed food contaminated with pesticides. Preliminary investigations suggest improper food handling — cooking oil stored in a contaminated container — is to blame. There is also potential that the contamination wasn't accidental — a chilling reminder to carefully screen and monitor your food handlers.

The CDC estimates that many of the 48 million illnesses each year in the U.S. go unreported; many of those who fall ill just soldier on and never see a doctor. There are more than 250 food-related types of illnesses caused by viruses, bacteria, parasites and chemical contamination. Most of those infected will recover completely. For some, however, the long-term effects can be devastating: kidney failure, chronic arthritis, brain and nerve damage, and even death.

Taking inventory: a crucial first step

According to risk management experts at Brotherhood Mutual, your first step toward safety is to do a thorough assessment of your ministry's food-related activities. Your assessment should include:

  • A list of all your food-related activities, including those where you prepare food on-site as well as those where it's brought. Don't forget about funerals, food ministries (like meals for shut-ins) or relatively impromptu meals like youth pizza nights or staff lunches.

  • Enforce proper food handling techniques. Routine kitchen inspections, food preparer training and posted instructions can all be useful tools to helping make sure your food is safe. Additionally, though it may seem unthinkable, you need to take precautions against someone intentionally contaminating food. You should consider screening and closely monitoring your food providers and handlers.

  • Examine your kitchen and serving equipment. Are you keeping hot foods hot and cold foods cold at the appropriate temperatures? The only way to know is to use thermometers in ovens, refrigerators and serving equipment to make sure they're within safe temperature ranges.

  • Talk with your insurance agent. Is your church adequately covered for all your activities and programs? Discuss your events with your agent to be better informed.

Resources to help keep your food safe

FoodSafety.gov was created by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to promote food safety. There, you'll find fact sheets and articles about a variety of topics, including:

Providing food for large groups requires special consideration. Check out the USDA's Cooking for Groups: A volunteer's guide to food safety for important guidance before your ministry's next big meal.

This article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be construed as legal advice. Readers should use this article as a tool, along with best judgment and any terms or conditions that apply, to determine appropriate policies and procedures for your church's risk management program.