NOROVIRUS! Are You Going To Get It… Again?

Family-Dinner-Questions-List-1

About six years ago my family all stayed in a cabin together in our local Southern Californian Mountains for Christmas, it was a very nice time.  Winter even brought us a special dusting of snow just for the holiday. But, winter also brought an unwelcome guest, “stomach flu”.

It started off with Uncle  getting an upset stomach which quickly turned to diarrhea.  While Uncle was in “quarantine”, my kids started to feel ill and were also kept to their room but it was to late. Because the little cousins got it, then Auntie and Papa and after tearing through pretty much the whole family we were almost done with our vacation. Sound familiar?

Well that thing that woke you up in the middle of the night sweating and shaking, that thing that made you throw up every 15 minutes for an entire night or that random bout of diarrhea is not actually what you might think it is. It’s not the “stomach flu”, or the “24 hour bug”, there is no such thing.  It is a very common food born disease that we have all had and that we will all get again called Norovirus.

Some people tell me they have never had it which is understandable because vomiting and diarrhea aren’t exactly socially desirable activities. But, according to the CDC 21 million Americans get it every year, that is 1 of 12 people. Unfortunately, the most common method of transmission is through what is referred to as the fecal-oral route. Sounds nice doesn’t it?

So how can I prevent this from happening at my next family reunion?  It’s very simple, do the things that make civilized people civil, like hand washing, using toilets and cleaning.  It is important to understand that people transmit the virus through feces and vomit and when you have many people in close quarters such as a home with guests in it, the likelihood of transmission increases, which is why I never go on cruise ships.  When someone is sick don’t be afraid to stay away or not let them prepare food. And yes, some people will take offense and say things like, “I’ve been doing this for years and never gotten anybody sick” (that you know of). Because that’s always a nice conversation to bring up, “remember that turkey you made last year, well it gave me diarrhea and stomach cramps”.

mother-in-law

Doesn’t cooking the food kill the virus?  Well, we need to be careful here. Viruses aren’t like other living creatures, they’re sort of like the zombies of the microorganism world which makes them difficult to destroy.  Plus, we don’t cook all of our food and drink so hygiene is the key to keeping you and your guests safe.

But what is really at stake? According to the CDC the estimates are as high as 3.3 billion dollars and 237 lives annually, and this is just for Norovirus.  Many other food born illnesses will be prevented by the same safety measures, some of which are more fatal.

So to recap, regularly wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap. Clean up after some one who has been sick and even stay away from the area. Finally, don’t be afraid to speak up when you feel something might be wrong, you’re not just protecting yourself.

What Are Expiration Dates On Packaging

Expiration dates come in many forms. There is the “best by”, “sell by” or “use by” dates and my favorite, the ambiguous random numbers stamped on the can.  In reality these dates are determined by the manufacturer and are part of a voluntary process.  These dates indicate to the store when the  foods are at their peak freshness and should be removed from shelves.  Basically, it’s another part of marketing, if you buy a food and it’s stale or not fresh you won’t buy it again.

When you look through the Food Safety Inspection Services (a branch of the USDA) web page you see the term “peak freshness or quality” appear over and over again when they describe what these dates mean. So when do the foods really expire?  Well for food service operations its different than for the home cook.  In the food service environment its simple, when the date on the label has passed it is expired, unless the food was prepared in house, then you have 7 days.  If the health inspector finds foods with expired dates they will mark it as a violation.

However, in the home it is different.  We can assess the foods by feeling their texture, smelling them or looking for discoloration. If any of these things seem off then throw them away, which means they can sometimes be used after the date on the label. The FSIS has also provided a chart outlining some guide lines for the safety of certain foods which you will see below.

Refrigerator Storage of Processed Products Sealed at Plant
Processed Product Unopened, After Purchase After Opening
Cooked Poultry 3 to 4 days 3 to 4 days
Cooked Sausage 3 to 4 days 3 to 4 days
Sausage, Hard/Dry, shelf-stable 6 weeks/pantry 3 weeks
Corned Beef, uncooked, in pouch with pickling juices 5 to 7 days 3 to 4 days
Vacuum-packed Dinners, Commercial Brand with USDA seal 2 weeks 3 to 4 days
Bacon 2 weeks 7 days
Hot dogs 2 weeks 1 week
Luncheon meat 2 weeks 3 to 5 days
Ham, fully cooked 7 days slices, 3 days; whole, 7 days
Ham, canned, labeled “keep refrigerated” 9 months 3 to 4 days
Ham, canned, shelf stable 2 years/pantry 3 to 5 days
Canned Meat and Poultry, shelf stable 2 to 5 years/pantry 3 to 4 days
Refrigerator Storage of Fresh or Uncooked Products
Product Storage Times After Purchase
Poultry 1 or 2 days
Beef, Veal, Pork and Lamb 3 to 5 days
Ground Meat and Ground Poultry 1 or 2 days
Fresh Variety Meats (Liver, Tongue, Brain, Kidneys, Heart, Chitterlings) 1 or 2 days
Cured Ham, Cook-Before-Eating 5 to 7 days
Sausage from Pork, Beef or Turkey, Uncooked 1 or 2 days
Eggs 3 to 5 weeks