By Jason Masters
     Environmental Health Director

Image of Thinking Health Inspector

 


A

Q: Dear Jason,
I just have a question…Is it possible for a large group of people to get sick from one meal? I was recently at a holiday party with some “friends”, and a few days later, several of them got sick! We are not sure of the cause, but we suspect one individual as the source….

-G. Rinch

Hello! Well that’s a great question that frequently comes up around the holiday season. The chances of a large group of people getting sick from one meal is pretty high, especially around the holiday season, due to people not paying attention to proper cooking times, food storage issues, and generally being distracted by the events around them. In fact, this reminds me of a poem I once heard…I’ll try to recreate it here the best I can. Any similarity to other stories or poems is purely coincidental…

To be read in the voice and style of a large, hairy, green being that initially dislikes his neighbors and their penchant for the holiday season, but through a series of misadventures and a journey of self-discovery, comes to the realization that his lifelong loathing may have been slightly misplaced…

“Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”
Was the thing I was thinking as I took my last bite.
I had no idea I was in for such trouble,
When I heard Mindy Sue Whoo’s small tummy grumble.

“It’s a Christmas feast!” I thought to myself,
“Fit for a King!” (Or at least a large elf)
The biggest spread! Hours it lasted!
Complete with orange flavored effervescent antacid.

When I took the Whoo’s pudding, and I took their roast beast,
I couldn’t have imagined it would be such a feast!
I didn’t hot hold it or keep anything cold.
“Why would I?” I thought, “It’s just hours old!”

I rolled it all up on the living room rug,
And then stuffed it all up with the rodents and bugs.
No reason to think I did anything wrong,
when I put all their food on a sleigh with a dog.

You know the story, I brought it all back,
and I carved it and served it right out of the sack.
Each Whoo got a serving (including the dog)
Topped off with a cup of Great Gram’s raw egg nog

Two days later, a few Whoo’s got sick,
complaining and saying they couldn’t sing worth a lick.
They took some painkillers! They drank soda water!
They used cool rags, but their fevers got hotter!

It came without warning! Not any red flags!
But it DID come with retching, and bloating, and gags!

Yes, all The Whoos down in Whooville were walking among us,
With cases of E. Coli and salmonellosis.
Diarrhea! And fever! And abdominal cramping!
No sleep in the night, just occasional catnapping!

About 10 percent of the Whoo’s were sent home, diagnosed with hemolytic uremic syndrome.
Red blood cells were damaged! Failure of the kidney!
Which is especially dangerous to young Whoo’s and the elderly…

About a week later, the Whoo’s felt much better,
Following textbook symptoms right down to the letter.

The moral of this story is just this my friends: keep your food safe from beginning to end.
Maintain hot temperatures if you plan to hot hold it,
One thirty five (135) is the number it must hit.
Forty one (41) or below for cold holding for later,
Use an ice bath or your Whoo-frigerator

Fully cook all your food, (roast beast included)
So you don’t get sick, like Mindy Sue Whoo did
Final cook temps are the things you must know
To reduce the microbial/bacterial load

Don’t put your roast beast under raw chicken juice
You may need a physician, (or one Dr. Seuss)
Storing food properly is the thing you must do
To avoid contamination, and adulteration too!

Fully wash your hands, small, large, or green.
Use soap and warm water, and scrub until clean.
In order to be safe this holiday season,
simply follow these rules, you all know the reason.

And one last thing before biding adieu,
Remember the story of G. Rinch and the Whoos…
Be kind to your family and neighbors alike,
Children are watching, even the tiniest tyke.

Happy Holidays, Everyone!

 

 

 

By Jason Masters
     Environmental Health Director

Image of Thinking Health Inspector

 

Thanksgiving!


A

Q: Hey Jason, my family is coming in for thanksgiving this year and I want it to be extra special (it’s my first one with my new in-laws!) What are some ways to make sure that my feast is safe? How far ahead can I prepare my broccoli/cheese casserole? I have a small kitchen and I want to prepare as much as possible before the big day.

-Sarah

Happy Thanksgiving Sarah! Great questions for this time of year.  You know, at my house on Thanksgiving, we always have broccoli cheese casserole too! It’s a staple at any of our holiday meals, but Thanksgiving is celebrated in a variety of ways across this great country of ours, and with a variety of delicious dishes. For example, if you live in Nevada or Idaho, you may be enjoying some frog eye salad. Or, if you live in Ohio, dirt pudding may be on your plate right next to the mashed potatoes. Either way, with all the tongue tickling dishes being prepared around this holiday, food safety is especially important to keep in mind. Let’s go ahead and dig in… (pun intended…)

 

Let’s start at the beginning and talk about thawing. I’m assuming that you are having turkey for dinner. Turkey is usually the “guest of honor” at Thanksgiving, but any meat will do…after all, Thanksgiving is not about the food, it’s about the people you spend it with. The food is secondary. How big is this bird? How long did you let this turkey thaw? Did you just remember this morning to take it out of the freezer?  It’s going to take more than a few hours to thaw out that 16-pound bird, and you can’t just throw it in the fridge and expect it to happen before noon. Generally speaking, you should allow about 24 hours for every 4 pounds of bird. That 16-pound bird you’ve got there? That’s going to take about 4 days to completely thaw. Don’t make the mistake of watching The Charlie Brown Thanksgiving special and forgetting to put the bird in the fridge.

 

Now, if you are familiar at all with my Ask A Health Inspector articles, you will remember how I have gone on and on about knowing, and reaching, final cook temperatures for safety. No exception here. Turkey must get to an internal temperature of 165 degrees F to be safe. I don’t care if you roast it, bake it, broil it, boil it, fry it (my personal favorite), smoke it, grill it, whatever…It must reach 165 degrees F inside the thickest part. Oh! and if you are one of those people who like to cook the stuffing inside the cavity of your turkey, well, that must reach 165 too. Just sayin’.  If you only take one thing away from this article today, let it be this: TURKEY MUST REACH 165 DEGREES F INTERNALLY TO BE SAFE.

 

Alright, moving right along through this thanksgiving feast, let’s talk about make-ahead preparation. Let’s say you want to make that broccoli cheese casserole about a week before the big day and check that off your list. That’s fine. Just remember to properly cool your casserole before putting it in the fridge. The requirement for restaurants in North Carolina, (and in my kitchen) is moving from a temperature of 135 degrees F to 70 degrees F within 2 hours, and from 70 degrees to 45 degrees in the next 4 hours. That should be easily achievable in your home kitchen unless you are making 47 pounds of casserole. (I always ask my wife to make extra because I COULD eat 47 pounds of broccoli cheese casserole…Ok, ok, probably not more than 45 pounds, but who’s counting?) Just be sure not to put your piping hot casserole into the fridge to cool. It won’t cool safely, and if your guests are going to get sick, you want it to be from over-indulgence, (they can’t blame YOU for that one), not improperly cooked and cooled food. And remember, you can hold a cooked and cooled food in your refrigerator for 7 days if it is maintained at 41 degrees or below.

 

Alright, let’s move right into reheating that delicious casserole. According to the 2017 NC Food Code, foods must be reheated from 41 degrees F to 165 degrees F within 2 hours. Doesn’t matter if you use the stove or the microwave, it must get to 165. This should be easy to remember because your TURKEY MUST REACH 165 DEGREES F INTERNALLY TO BE SAFE. (I might have said that before in this article.) Its only one temperature to remember, people! 165 degrees F. Know it. Live it. Love it.

 

OK, OK. I get it. The real question you want to know is how long can I nap while the food is still on the counter? Great question. In restaurants, if a food is going to be held outside of temperature control (that is, 135 or above for hot holding, and 41 or below for cold holding) it is safe for 4 hours, but they must have written procedures in place, and a way to monitor that food. Now at home, of course, you don’t need written procedures, but you do need to remember that you put that sliced turkey on the platter at 1:00, and you have 4 hours to safely leave it there. (6 hours if you can manage to keep the house temperature below 70 degrees F, but good luck with that if you have the stove and oven going, football on TV, kids screaming, coffee brewing, Uncle Adam leaving the front door open, neighbors popping in and out, and the other neighbor’s dog barking…A better move is it shoot for no more than 4 hours.) Now, the kicker is that at the end of that 4-hour period, that turkey must be discarded.  A far better move is to properly cool and refrigerate or freeze any leftovers as soon as possible so you get to have my favorite breakfast sandwich the next day…that is bread+mayo+broccoli cheese casserole+cranberry+gravy+turkey+mashed potatoes+dressing+cheesecake+more gravy+chocolate chip pecan pie+mayo+bread. Now THAT’S a breakfast sandwich.

 

And while we’re at it, let’s go ahead and address some thoughts on “The Charlie Brown Thanksgiving special”:

  1. Why does Charlie Brown keep trying to kick that football?
  2. As a health inspector, I find it appalling that a dog and a bird are placed in charge of the kitchen. The risk of salmonella alone would be astronomical!
  3. Why is Charlie Brown completely bald? (Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great look, but he’s a kid!) And Linus has a serious hair thinning problem…is there something in the water?
  4. It’s no wonder Charlie Brown’s eyes look like that…look how close he sits to the TV! Does he need glasses? This should be addressed!
  5. Why did everyone get invited to Charlie Brown’s grandmothers house except Snoopy, when Snoopy is the one who did all the work in the first place?
  6. Isn’t it weird that Woodstock would eat turkey?
  7. Where the heck are all the adults? The kids were going to have toast, popcorn, and jellybeans for thanksgiving, for Pete’s sake!

 

Happy Thanksgiving, Everyone!

 

 

 

 

By Jason Masters
     Environmental Health Director

Image of Thinking Health Inspector

 

Fairs and Festivals


A

Q: Hello Jason, I’ve had a great summer and I love all the festivals in our area and throughout North Carolina! I’ve had a chance to try all kinds of foods that I wouldn’t normally  have an opportunity to eat, (like liver mush! Yum!) and they have been delicious! As the Mountain State Fair approaches, is there anything I should be worried about as far as food goes? And what about food trucks in places like the wonderful festivals I’ve attended this year?

Vendors at festivals and other events are required to obtain a temporary food establishment (TFE) permit from the environmental health department before serving food. Our department makes a visit to the vendor, usually on the day of the festival or event, and after a review of menu items and preparation processes, as well as a checklist of items relating to general food safety, we issue a permit.  It is important to note that no food is allowed to be prepared before the beginning of a festival. We won’t let Bubba use the same meat at this event that he patted out at last month’s  burger festival.  Now, here’s what you need to know…

There are no regulations relating to the people working at these TFEs. No one is required to be a certified food protection manager (like at restaurants) and  (usually) no one from our office does an inspection after a permit is issued (except in the case of a multi-day event, like the mountain state fair, where there is potential for things to go awry).

When we issue a permit to a TFE, we only make sure that sanitation tools are in place. We can’t guarantee that anybody uses them on a regular basis. Yes, we make sure they have gloves. Yes, we make sure they have a means to wash their hands. Yes, we make sure the food they are preparing to sell appears to be maintained properly and safely. But that doesn’t mean that Bubba over at the burger tent is wearing his beard restraint and washing those enormous mitts of his after grabbing the meat for a big ol’ double bubba.

Now Jason, does that mean that nothing is safe at festivals and fairs?

Of course not!

Keep in mind that most of the people that own these business make their living selling food. It is certainly not in their best interest to simply ignore basic hygiene and food safety. To help ease your mind, here are some things to look for before ordering that deep fried double bubba:

-All temporary food establishments are required to have a canopy or tent over the entire operation. If you see someone selling shrimp cocktail off the back of a tailgate, they are probably not permitted.

-All TFEs are required to have some sort of ground cover. Concrete, asphalt and even grass is OK. Don’t let Bubba wade through the mud to take your 15 dollars 

-All water must be from an approved source, and there must be a way to heat water on site.  Lake Lure and Lake James are not approved sources.

-A means to wash, rinse and sanitize utensils must be on site, as well as sanitizer, and sanitizer test strips. If you see Bubba throw down some raw meat on top of an Igloo cooler, you might want to consider going back for that grilled cheese sandwich at the Queso-Loco food truck.

-A handwashing station must be available with hot water under pressure. We will even allow a cooler with hot water inside, but the water must be able to flow freely. Also, the water has to be caught in a bucket or container of some kind. We don’t want Bubba to get his boots all muddy before he steps on the onions.

-Food must be stored where it can be secured against tampering, and off the ground. Don’t let Bubba “go around back” to grab some more “real special” meat for your order.

-Cold holding equipment and food thermometers must be available and in working order. Of course, that doesn’t mean they will use them, but they at least have to be there.

The best advice I can give you is to pay attention to the surroundings, pay attention to the people working, and make good choices relating to what you eat at fairs and festivals. As always, if you have issues, go to the doctor so they can verify that you have a foodborne illness, and be sure to report it to the Environmental Health Department. If the fair or festival is still in town, we may be able to address the situation immediately. If you wait too long, though, those vendors may disappear faster than a funnel cake in front of a four year old.

Well, what about food trucks?

Here is the quick and skinny on food trucks, or Mobile Food Units (MFUs) as we call them. (We will save the really good details of MFUs for another issue…) Basically, an MFU is inspected the same way a restaurant is. They are required to have a certified food protection manager on site (or lose two points), they are required to have employee health policies on site, and follow all the other rules and regulations that a restaurant is required to follow. In addition, they are required to have a commissary that they “partner” with to store supplies, cleaning equipment and other food items they may not have room for on their truck. A commissary can be a restaurant, or an establishment that meets all the necessary requirements for a commercial grade kitchen, and must be a permitted establishment, and inspected on a regular basis. An MFU is required to return to their sponsoring commissary at the end of each day of operation for cleaning, dumping, refilling, etc.

Ok then, what about pushcarts? Is it safe to eat a hot dog in this town?

Pushcarts operate in much the same way as a mobile food unit. They are required to work in conjunction with a permitted commissary, they must return to the commissary at the end of each day of operation, and they are required to provide a list of events or locations at which they will be setting up. The pushcart itself must be inspected to ensure that all components are smooth and easily cleanable, and NSF (or commercial grade) approved. They are only allowed to use single service items, like wax paper, and plastic utensils, and…here is the big thing…they can only prepare hot dogs on the cart. They can’t grill you a burger. They can’t mix you up a milkshake. They can’t toss you a fresh salad. They can sell/serve things that have been previously pre-portioned, pre-wrapped and prepared (how’s that for an alliteration?) in their commissary, but that’s it. If you see somebody selling freshly prepared ceviche at a pushcart, it would probably be best to keep on moving.

So, to sum it up, Patsy, there are lots of things to be worried about, but with a little observation and some good decisions, you should be able to rest assured that the only reason you are throwing up is the double order of chili cheese fries with extra jalapenos, and the poor timing of riding the Cyclops right after.

Enjoy the fair, friends!

 

 

 

 

By Jason Masters
     Environmental Health Director

Image of Thinking Health Inspector

 

 

Pork, Pot Luck & Pudding… Oh My!


A

Q: Dear Jason,

 

Let me start by saying I did not grow up eating large amounts of pork and other ground sausage-like meats. Moreover, when I went off to college I became a vegetarian. The reason for my seeking your counsel is, I’ve recently had a couple of interesting experiences that make we wonder if pork and sausage consumption is an acquired skill.  First, I recently ate my first hot dog in 15 years and it was delicious! Unfortunately, I rapidly had explosive diarrhea.  Second, earlier this month I attended a potluck.  The tastiest dish was my neighbor’s home-made pork sausage, spicy Italian style. Well, periodically that night and until noon the next day let’s just say my pipework was a-rattilin’. Would these upsetting experiences abate if I became a regular hot dog and pork consumer?  That is, is it an acquired skill? Or did I draw two contaminated lots of meat?

                                                                                    -L.T.

A: Hello L.T.! I really hate to hear this, and I hope I can offer some guidance!

Let’s get right to it…

Well this is truly an interesting question. Not just because of the subject matter, but because it involves a few different aspects. First off, there is the biological approach…how do our bodies respond to certain stimuli, and is everyone’s body the same? Second, there is the epidemiological approach… how many people were at the party? How many fellow party-goers ate the exact same things you did, at the exact same time? Is there a timeline that can be created? And finally, there is the environmental health approach…were the products tainted before ingestion? How likely is it that some form of time or temperature abuse took place during/after food preparation? What role, if any, did personal hygiene play in the production/preparation of the food itself? That is, bare hand contact with ready -to-eat food, hand washing, etc, and were any other risk factors associated with food borne illnesses compromised? (Holding, cooking, cooling, approved sources)

Let’s start with the biological approach. A vegetarian that has stayed true for several years may, in fact, experience some symptoms similar to the ones you have described because the enzymes in the human gut that help digest meat have been asleep for the past 15 years! It’s pretty common for vegetarians (or regular carnivores that abruptly switch to a vegetarian or vegan diet) to experience some form of nausea while adjusting to a new diet. Is everyone who makes the switch going to experience the same thing? No way! As is true in most life experiences, every body is different, just as everybody is different.

Next, let’s take a look at the epidemiological view. Did other people at the party or other members of the cookout become ill after ingesting the same foods at the same time? I’m going to go ahead and assume that if you were invited to a party, you probably know more than one or two people there and, inevitably, the subject of gastrointestinal distress would have come up in casual conversation subsequent to the party…surely that doesn’t only happen me…right?

Finally let’s talk about the environmental health approach. Of, course, this is the one I’m most concerned with. Now, here in the environmental health world, we like to know as much as possible about things before we start talking about them. For example, did you know that sausages are also known as frankfurters, wieners, and our beloved hot dogs? They differ slightly with seasoning, length, and method of preparation, but they almost always share the similar characteristics of being cured, sometimes smoked, and presented in an edible casing. The term frankfurter is a derivative of Frankfurt, a major metropolis in Germany. The term wiener comes from Vienna, a city in Austria. So, back to the subject… There is always the potential for the number one thing that grosses me out, bare hand contact with ready to eat food. It is almost impossible to determine how many times people handle their wieners, frankfurters and sausages with bare hands. In addition, temperature abuse is a common theme associated with potluck parties. People love to bring potato salad, slaw, and big plates of hot dogs and hamburgers and set them on a table covered with a cute plastic tablecloth with Yogi the bear running away from the ranger, and then leave them for hours and hours while they go gossip about the neighbors. It happens all the time, every summer. To sum it up, we would need some additional information before we could make an accurate determination about what caused your foodborne related illness. I hope that this event doesn’t cause you to discount hot dogs forever.

 

 

 

By Jason Masters
     Environmental Health Director

Grill by k8southern is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Re-inventing The Grill…


A

Q: Hello Jason. With summer fast approaching, my family is looking forward to spending more time outdoors. We love to grill out on our patio, but we have always been afraid of undercooking our food, so we end up burning or severely overcooking everything. Is there a safe way to move food from our normal kitchen area to our grilling area, and what are some tips we can use to help us maintain delicious, properly prepared meats and vegetables?

-Julie

A: Hi Julie, I’m glad you asked this question. This is the time of the year when people start spending more and more time outside, with music playing, kids going crazy in the street, everybody wearing their shades until 10 PM…you know what I’m talking about. It’s only natural that somebody throws some meat on the grill and the next thing you know, BAM! Salmonellosis is running rampant.

Now, hopefully, none of us will experience this scenario this summer, and there are several things you can do to help avoid this. This is a good time to remember the “core four” rules of sanitation…

Clean-You want to make sure that everything that comes in contact with your food is clean. I’m talking about pans, cutting boards, utensils like tongs, knives, EVERYTHING. There is no easier way to contaminate your food than with dirty utensils.
Separate-This seems easy, but is sometimes surprisingly difficult. You must make sure that cooked food never comes in contact with utensils that have previously handled or touched raw meat.
Cook-Unless you haven’t been to a restaurant in the last 25 years, I’m sure you are familiar with the consumer advisory. It’s usually that tiny print at the bottom of the menu that talks about eating raw or undercooked food, and the possibility of becoming sick by consuming certain foods. (We will talk more about the consumer advisory in another issue…) Same rules apply at home…you want to make sure that all your food is completely cooked for food safety, but at the same time, you want to maintain quality by not overcooking. There is only one way to do this…~spoiler alert~-it’s not the poke and feel method, it’s not the cut and watch the juices to see if they run clear method, it’s not the “been on there for 2 and a half hours” method, and it’s not the “well, my brother-in-law always leaves chicken on the grill for 2 minutes per side and it’s the best! Ain’t never got sick yet” method. The only way to be sure a food is cooked is to use a food thermometer, and know the correct final cook temperatures for the food you are cooking. Now, with that being said, a chef or experienced cook may be able to tell when a food is properly cooked through learned methods and awareness of conditions, but to be on the safe side, I recommend using a food thermometer.
Cool or serve immediately-After your food is removed from the grill (or whatever method you are using) don’t let it sit around** while you finish that second gin and tonic. Hopefully you have prepared sides or other dishes that are ready to go when your food is removed from the grill. If you aren’t going to be eating the dish shortly after it is removed from the heat, you need to begin actively cooling the food to ensure it is not maintained in “the danger zone” (145 degrees F – 45 degrees F) for a long period of time.
If you are a long time reader of our “Ask A Health Inspector” column, you already know the importance of thoroughly washing your hands before, during, and after food preparation. It’s not OK to grab raw meat, slap it on the grill, and wipe your hands on your “AC/DC” T-shirt. Even Angus Young wouldn’t do that.

Other things to remember during the summer months include proper thawing, proper marinating, and correct holding temperatures. Putting a 2 pound package of frozen hamburger in the sink and letting it sit there all day because “Gotta get ready for tonight!” is not proper thawing. Safe methods for thawing food include placing it under running water of 70 degrees or less, as part of the cooking process (which I don’t recommend for burgers) or the preferred method of thawing; under refrigeration. Yes, it’s going to take a little more planning to remember to grab the meat out of the freezer, but hey, you’re reaching in there for ice anyway for that gin and tonic, right? It’s right there! Just grab it!

It is possible to safely thaw meat in the microwave, but be careful, as microwaves tend to fluctuate, and can pretty easily “over-thaw” something. Sometimes it’s hard to hide that really dry, overcooked part of a burger with cheese (yeah, I do that too…~wink~)

Marinating is an issue that we run across frequently as well. It is not safe to marinate something on the counter at room temperature. Many people think that because their marinade contains citrus juices, or salt, or hot sauce, or whiskey, or whatever, that microorganisms can’t grow. WRONG. Just as with cooked food, raw food held at “danger zone” temperatures can grow multitudes of bacteria. Yes, when you put the food on the grill and thoroughly cook it to its appropriate final cook temperature, the bacteria will be killed…BUT, what won’t be killed is toxins that the bacteria can produce. Toxins are made up of proteins, and technically aren’t “alive”, therefore they can’t be killed by heat. So be sure to marinate your food under refrigeration, and ensure that you are storing your foods correctly in the fridge. Don’t put your banana pudding under the marinating chicken. It’s a well-known fact that bacteria love banana pudding… (This is not true, and is just used as an illustrative point, but for real, don’t put raw, marinating foods above ready-to-eat foods. It is a really bad idea, and I would mark a restaurant for doing this and take points.) This leads us into correct holding temperatures.

If you are going to be holding foods they must be maintained at temperatures above 135 degrees F or below 45 degrees F. Holding at these temperatures will prevent the growth of harmful bacteria, and therefore be less likely to produce toxins, not to mention most people like their food hot, not tepid. I’m not one to cite etiquette, but it’s just not polite to serve your guests cold food.

So this summer, when you are out chilling with your buddies, hanging around, talking about how crazy the kids are, remember to be safe when Bubba tells you he’s just going in to grab another beer and that chicken that’s been sitting on the table since noon in his special blend of liquor and clam juice. It might not be the best idea to put Bubba in charge of the grill next week…if you live to see next week…

**By “sitting around” I mean left for longer than about 30 minutes or so. It is usually a good final cook step to let your food (especially meat) rest for a period of about 5-10 minutes before slicing or serving. This rest time will allow for the juices of the meat to redistribute, and will allow the food to reach its final cook temperature… (You DO know your final cook temperatures, right? If not, we will cover those in another issue. Sorry, you are not allowed to grill anything until you read that article…lol)-

JM

 

 

 

 

By Jason Masters
     Environmental Health Director

Raw Oysters-Delicious or Gross?


A

Q: Hi Jason. I have a question about oysters. I love raw oysters, but I’m worried about eating them in the summer, because my Granny told me to never eat oysters in months with no “R”. Is this true? Why? Am I doomed to only eat oysters in the cold months?
-Jamie

A: Well Jamie, this is a very common question, and one that I’m glad you brought up, considering that May is the first month of the year with no “R”. (Convenient how that worked out, huh…) The old adage of not eating oysters in months with no “R” came about for very good reason. In the days of yore, when digging up your own oysters was commonplace, it was a bad idea to eat our little shelled friends in the summer months due to the red tide in warm water areas. The microscopic algae blooms of the red tide produce toxins, and introduce them into areas where shellfish are harvested, and the shellfish then absorb these toxins making them harmful to humans. The scientific community has, in recent years, decided to use the term Harmful Algal Blooms (HAB) rather than “red tide”. Why? Because scientists believe they need to overcomplicate things…Red tides (or HABs) have been documented in every coastal state, and occur almost every summer in Florida.

So, should you eat oysters in the summer months? Of course! (with some caveats…) They are delicious! (so long as you get them from a reputable source…) I like mine raw, with a mignonette (men-ya-NET), and some crackers! (they can also be accompanied by lemon juice, hot sauce, garlic, or any number of stomach churning toppings…)

Today, oysters from most grocery stores and/or restaurants come from commercially harvested areas, are regulated by the FDA, and are usually from cold water climates. In addition, at least here at our Health District, and throughout North Carolina, establishments that sell and/or cook shellstock are required to maintain the tags that are attached to bags of shellstock for a minimum of 90 days , record the date of last sale, and maintain them in the establishment in chronological order, just in case anyone does get sick.
Now, with all that being said, a bigger worry about eating oysters (at least raw oysters) is Vibrio parahaemolyticus (para-HEEMA-lit-a-cuss) and Vibrio vulnificus (vul-NIF-a-cuss). These two species of bacteria live and thrive in warm, salt water environments, and are associated with eating raw or undercooked seafood, particularly shellfish. A V. parahaemolyticus infection causes all the standard flu-like symptoms, (fever, chills, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, etc.) but most people make it through, without medication, in about 3 days or so. V. vulnificus, however, is a much meaner little fellow, and is particularly harmful to those who are immunocompromised. V. vulnificus can enter the body through ingestion, or through open wounds or cuts. Symptoms usually show up between 1 and 7 days after exposure, and can include similar issues to parahaemolyticus, but can include skin lesions, and shock. About 50% of patients die from a V. vulnicus infection, even with aggressive treatment. The good news is, only about 30 cases are reported in the United States per year. For you math nerds, that means about 0.6 cases per state, per year. Not enough for me to worry about, but if you are, you should know that heat kills all species of Vibrio. Heat is the ONLY thing that kills vibrio. Hot sauce will NOT kill vibrio. Lemon juice will NOT kill vibrio. Prayer will NOT kill vibrio.

So, while you may think a groovy vacation is digging oysters for your next shucking, while listening to “Pulling Mussels From a Shell” and “Rock Lobster”, it would be advisable to get all your shellstock from a reputable source, just so you live to see next year’s vacation…

Mignonette recipe
-2 tablespoons finely chopped shallot (or onion)
-About ½ cup red wine vinegar
-Salt and pepper to taste
-Combine all ingredients and chill (and I mean put into refrigeration, not just hang out on the couch listening to jazz…) until ready to serve.