Originally created 08/03/97

Breeding ground

Antonio Jones knows it's there, lurking in the back of the refrigerator, waiting for an unsuspecting family member to open the door.

"Fourth of July barbecue," he said, shaking his head. "There's probably a piece of rib in there, a leg, a wing, I don't know what."

"Sausage, you name it," said girlfriend Sabrina Miller, 27, as she loaded groceries in the back of the car.

"You just forget it's there, and it gets pushed back in there," said Mr. Jones, 31, an Augusta firefighter.

For Kevin Skillman, 23, it's probably that jar of mayonnaise.

"I know for a fact (it's old) because I bought it last year," he said, as he and friends loaded up a van with groceries at Bi-Lo in Daniel Village shopping center.

Refrigerator relics, a source of college amusement and wayward biology experiments, can actually hurt you, say doctors and dietitians. And your biggest enemies could be the foods that look fine - that jar of mayonnaise or salsa that keeps giving and giving.

But if you don't remember when you bought it, how do you know?

Some go by the smell rule. You peel back the aluminum foil and cautiously bring it up to your nose. No smell, no problem, though sometimes that's a committee decision.

"You smell it. `No, you smell it,"' Mr. Skillman said.

But the nose can lie.

"If it stinks, that's a good indicator, but the fact that it doesn't smell doesn't mean it's OK," said John Steele, medical director of the clinical microbiology laboratory at Medical College of Georgia, which tests for food-borne bacteria.

Others go by the fuzz factor - if it isn't growing hair, it's still fine. But the carpeted stuff may actually be less dangerous than something that looks fine but has been sitting around long past its prime.

"The fungi ... are less likely to cause illness," said J. Peter Rissing, chief of infectious diseases for Medical College of Georgia and the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Augusta.

Others find comfort in the "sell-by" date on the package. But once it has been opened, all bets are off, said Joyce Smart, spokeswoman for Bi-Lo Inc. of Mauldin, S.C.

"Once air is allowed into the product, you will change that date," Ms. Smart said. Unopened lunch meat, for example, can sit around safely for two weeks, but once the seal is broken it is good for only three to five days.

Ms. Miller said she doesn't even bother checking for scent, mold or date - if it looks old, it goes. That's a good strategy to use particularly when faced with the risks of taking a bite of mystery casserole.

"The thing you have to ask yourself is, `Would it really be worth it if I get a rip-roaring diarrheal disease for this?"' Dr. Rissing said.

He's not kidding. He was a witness to the chicken salad incident.

He would not name names, but he recalled that a few years back an Augusta group was making a large amount of chicken salad for a banquet. The chicken was boiled, but then Dr. Rissing suspects it was put back on the surface where it had sat raw and probably picked up bacteria. It was mixed with mayonnaise while still warm and then put in two large containers, too big for some of the mixture in the middle to cool properly and slow the growth of the bacteria.

The end result was more than 100 people sickened by salmonella, some seriously enough to go to the hospital, though Dr. Rissing doesn't recall that anyone died.

Salmonella can lurk in chicken, eggs, milk and even powdered milk. Pick up a chicken in a grocery store and the odds are 50-50 that it is contaminated with salmonella, Dr. Rissing said. Thoroughly cooking the chicken and storing it at the proper temperature can keep salmonella from breeding enough to make you sick.

Dr. Steele worries more about shigella, a nasty little bug spread by contact with human or animal feces. While it can take a million salmonella organisms to make someone sick, the shigella can make you sick with just 10, he said.

"It's a scary thought," he said.

Ironically, people who take acid-blockers before meals in an effort to fight heartburn may actually be making themselves more susceptible to food-borne illnesses, Dr. Rissing said. The pills reduce the amount of stomach acid, which is the "first line of defense" against the bacteria entering the body, he said.

Perhaps the food-safety message is getting through - MCG has seen only three cases of salmonella so far this year, compared to 19 in 1996.

"I guess people are cooking their hamburgers better," Dr. Steele said.

Or policing their refrigerators better and learning when to let go of the meatloaf.


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