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The Record-Eagle, Traverse City, Mich., Dan Nielsen column

The Record-Eagle - 9/13/2017

Sept. 13--Discomfort food is not macaroni and cheese, or your mother's chili.

Well, if mom mixes too many beans in with the tomatoes and beef, some discomfort may follow.

But two groups this month want food professionals to do all they can to prevent discomfort -- and even danger -- away from the mouths of consumers.

The Michigan Restaurant Association and the National Restaurant Association are celebrating National Food Safety Month with the theme "The Culture of Food Safety."

"Food safety and security is the top priority for Michigan's 16,000 restaurants," Justin Winslow, President and CEO of the Michigan Restaurant Association, said in a release.

"This September, we will be providing additional tools food service professionals need to protect themselves and their guests with food safety techniques. With over 50 million meals served daily, the culture of food safety is not just the responsibility of one person. It takes the entire team working together to make sure food is served safely."

The idea is to prevent the serving of discomfort food -- meals that can give the consumer a stomach ache or worse.

Sanitation is the primary message. Clean hands and clean utensils are the primary tools used to keep contamination from spreading. Also important is storing foods at appropriate temperatures. And proper cooking can kill many contaminants.

Failure to follow the rules has led to discomfort and even tragedy in today's environment of corporate farming and massive industrial food distribution. Cantaloupes, peanut butter and chicken have taken turns as delivery vehicles for widespread discomfort and worse.

Today's food system truly is amazing. Traverse City residents can enjoy lettuce in January that was grown in California. We can peel an orange grown in Florida. We can make guacamole from avocados harvested in Mexico. We can satisfy a sweet tooth with chocolate made from Peruvian cacao beans.

But the extensive farming and distribution network that fills grocery stores with food sometimes enables the spread of invisible contaminants like listeria, botulism and salmonella. In the old days of mostly local food production and consumption, outbreaks of food poisoning also were local. No more. These days, contamination can spread far and wide. Regulations and inspections exist to minimize such events.

Some food-related discomfort isn't nearly so serious.

Like the mental discomfort I suffered the time I bought a large soda at a Hardee's in Wisconsin soon after disembarking from the SS Badger car ferry. One hand scooped up a sack of food and I used the other to lift the cup with an overhand grip. I'd taken only a couple of steps before the paper container deformed and splashed to the floor. I stared at the plastic lid still in my hand, the straw sticking up between my fingers. My wife, halfway out the door, turned to view the carnage and display a bemused smirk at my folly.

The server took pity on the fool and gave me a fresh cup, no charge. Halfway across the parking lot, I explained what had led to the disaster and showed my wife how it happened -- I carefully demonstrated the faulty grip technique. The new cup of Dr. Pepper, much to my chagrin, fell to the pavement, leaving me twice embarrassed in Wisconsin -- and still thirsty.

Or like the physical discomfort I enjoyed near Del Norte, Colorado. My father, my grandfather and I stopped for lunch at a tiny Mexican restaurant slouched by the side of the highway a mile from town. I ordered a second helping while my nasal passages were still on fire from the first enchilada, which was incredibly tasty and as hot as the business end of a volcano.

Or the combination of both mental and physical discomfort that slowly enveloped me after I ill-advisedly ordered a pulled pork sandwich at the takeout window of a sketchy eatery outside Battle Mountain, Nevada. As soon as I took a bite, I realized the high-school-age worker behind the window hadn't left the meat in the microwave long enough -- one side of the greasy protein burned my tongue while the other side was still frozen. And parts of the bun were so stale they broke between my teeth like a giant crouton.

But I was hungry after long hours on the desert highway, so I kept chewing on the poor excuse for a meal while sitting at a sun-drenched picnic table. As I forced down a swallow, I noticed that -- as is common in many western communities -- someone had spelled out the town's name, in abbreviated format, in white-painted rocks high on the side of the nearest mountain. A giant "BM" stared at me from among the high-altitude sagebrush.

The sandwich felt bad going in, felt bad squatting in my innards the rest of the day, and felt bad when it eventually left my body. Asking for that entree was just as bad a choice as the decision to actually consume it.

Those are examples of foods that over the years have caused me minor personal discomfort.

The efforts of the state and national restaurant associations are aimed at preventing major discomfort. More information is available at FoodSafetyMonth.com.

Contact Business Editor Dan Nielsen at 231-933-1467 or dnielsen@record-eagle.com.

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(c)2017 The Record-Eagle (Traverse City, Mich.)

Visit The Record-Eagle (Traverse City, Mich.) at record-eagle.com

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