A November 2005 investigation uncovered 15 cases of food poisioning linked to a meal served at a Saginaw county church. Earlier this year, health officials reminded Saginaw County churches of regulations surrounding serving food to the public.

The County Department of Public Health conducts food safety reminder campaigns during the winter holidays when many groups serve food at holiday bazaars and other public events that require a temporary food service license.

While food licenses are not required for potlucks, funeral dinners, church suppers or similar functions where participants bring a favorite dish or serve a meal to members only, a red flag goes up when the welcome mat goes out to the public.

Those traditional events are coming under scrutiny, say health officials, following confirmation of several cases of food poisoning in 2005.

Outbreaks of foodborne illness may occur in any food setting, but communal meals are especially susceptible to harboring sickening bacteria. Plus, when multiple cooks are involved it’s more difficult to pinpoint the origins of the illness.

Historically, a potluck gathers people for a meal where the participants bring a favorite homemade dish to share. They are a mainstay for meeting and recruitment for a variety of groups. Serving a meal potluck-style simplifies the preparations and distributes the cost of the meal among the participants.

The Health Department insists that it isn’t out to put a lid on potlucks. But once the welcome mat is extended to the general public, Richards said event sponsors must obtain a temporary food license. Food vendors serving the public at festivals, bazaars and other events where the general public is invited are required to obtain a temporary food service license good for one to two weeks. That’s also the case for churches and other groups hosting suppers, pancake breakfast, fish fry or similar events where the food is prepared on site and sold to the public.