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Feasts and Festivities Can Hold Some Hazards

By Susan Levine
Sunday, December 19, 2004; Page C04

Dinner tables laden with hams and cream sauces and heavenly ambrosia. Buffet spreads crowded with delectable enticements. The festive scenes! The myriad offerings! The potential for danger.

Between office parties and family gatherings, the holidays can be risky in so many ways. There's the threat, to young and old alike, from such uninvited guests as E. coli, salmonella and campylobacter. There's the particular peril, in the hands and mouths of little ones, of holly berry and the button batteries that power toys -- or a relative's hearing aids.

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Not that Rose Ann Soloway of the National Capital Poison Center wants to be a Scrooge about the season. Or that Odonna Mathews, whose name and voice are synonymous locally with food safety, would say bah, humbug to neighborhood potlucks.

But the pair teamed last week with Bruce Anderson of the Maryland Poison Center to get out the word: Precautions must be taken for a healthy holiday.

In 2003, the two poison centers fielded more than 8,000 calls from mid-November to New Year's. Plenty of holiday near-catastrophes were among them.

Food poisoning is a significant cause of distress at this time of year. (Annually in this country, food-borne bacteria trigger more illness than anything but the common cold. Major incidences can sicken hundreds, as did a 1997 salmonella outbreak at a Southern Maryland church dinner in which one elderly woman died.) The reason is easy to figure.

"One in three consumers do not throw food away" after it's been sitting out more than two hours, said Mathews, the vice president of consumer affairs at Giant Food and a self-described "fanatic" about safety issues. Party platters grow warm on buffet lines. The next round of crab casserole is spooned into the same chafing dish as the last, which risks contamination. Tired hosts delay cleanup and assume food left out overnight is still edible.

"It's a challenge to get people to realize," Mathews said. They remember their childhoods. "They say, 'Grandma didn't get sick.' "

Perhaps only because Grandma, along with the rest of the family, was lucky. Bacteria multiply rapidly in food not kept cold or hot enough. The danger range is 40 to 140 degrees, she said. Cooks should use thermometers to gauge the internal temperature of meats or those deep trays of once-frozen lasagna.

"People have no idea how long it takes for those to get to 165 degrees," she said.

While Mathews's message, delivered near the deli counter of one of Giant's Bethesda stores, was intended for cooks and hostesses, her partners aimed theirs directly at parents and grandparents.

Soloway ticked off the items that children sometimes find and put in their mouths -- batteries, pills, plants, cigarette butts, the remnants in a glass of rum-enhanced eggnog. The holidays increase such opportunities, especially if they involve relatives long past child-proofing years who might leave medicines out.

And with all the company and commotion, "it's easy to lose track of children. Everybody is certain that someone else is looking after little Johnny," Soloway said. She recommended one-on-one assignments to keep track of the youngest. "It's up to adults to keep the holidays safe for children."

For more information, check www.poison.org, www.umaryland.edu/poisonprevention, www.giantfood.com/food_safety or www.foodsafety.gov.

For concern about a possible poisoning, the poison centers can be reached at 800-222-1222. In the Washington area, that will connect to the National Capital Poison Center. Outside the area, it will reach the Maryland Poison Center in Baltimore.

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