Over the years I know that we have all had our share of potluck meals. But just how safe are they? Potlucks can go by many names — carry-in dinners, pass a dish, or covered dishes. No matter what you call them, potlucks are scary. It all comes down to foodborne illness.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) every year 1 in 6 Americans get sick after consuming a contaminated food or beverage. These illnesses are largely preventable with proper food safety, yet potluck is where food safety strategies often break down. Foods sit out for too long at the wrong temperature, and people can easily contaminate a dish by grabbing a serving with their hands or double dipping.
So is a potluck in your future? If it is, here are a few dos and don’ts for a food-safe event.
Do remember the two-hour rule. Any potentially hazardous foods (dairy, meats, fish, cooked vegetables, rice, chopped fruit that have set out at room temperature for more than two hours should not be eaten. Have a plan for keeping hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Consider transportation time in the two-hour rule.
Don’t forget to wash your hands. When preparing foods for an event, take extra care at home to keep things clean and safe. If there are animals in your home, keep them away from the food and preparation area.
Don’t prepare food for other people if you are sick, If you have had the sniffles, vomiting, or diarrhea in the past few days, then don’t cook. Don’t partially cook food at home to finish at the potluck. The best method would be to completely cook all potentially hazardous foods at the meal site.
Don’t prepare foods the day before with the intent of reheating in a slow cooker. Completely cooking the food on the day of the event eliminates the risky cooling and reheating steps. Don’t use slow cookers to reheat leftovers; this is too slow. If you are using a slow cooker to keep the food hot, reheat the food to 165 degrees and then put it in the slow cooker.
Encourage people to label and describe their food items. This will help with possible food allergies, and also will keep people from smelling or touching the foods with their hands. Taking just a little taste in line to see what it is. Remember to have tongs or other serving utensils available; that will help people avoid using their fingers or double dipping.
Encourage the use of paper plates and /or clean plates for seconds and deserts. Do refrigerate left overs as soon as possible. Break large items into smaller portions so they will cool more quickly.
Don’t take left overs home. This could be risky. Not only has the food sat out at room temperature for a long time there is potential contamination from the many people passing through the buffet line.
Remember the garbage – bring extra garbage bags. Prevent potential contamination by keeping the garbage away from the food preparation and serving areas.
For more information contact Lethia Lee, EFNEP Assistant with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service at 910-592-7161.
Leitha Lee is the EFNEP program assistant for the Expanded Food Nutrition Education Program with the Sampson County Cooperative Extension Center.