State offers ways to take the 'luck' out of holiday potlucks

Simple steps avoid the 'danger zone' for illness

Hopefully, good tidings and good cheer will this year translate into good food and good health. Tis’ the season for office parties and potlucks, and the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s food safety experts want you to keep in mind some basic, common-sense rules.

“This is the time of year we see an increase in the number of people who suffer from food borne illness,” says Susan Kendrick, ODA food safety specialist. “It’s a time when you may be serving different kinds of foods than you are used to preparing. Those foods may sit out for longer periods of time. People need to think about the food they might be bringing with them to share, how they handle it, and how safe it is. The holidays are a time to use extra planning and care.”

One of the most basic rules for this time of year is to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. That also means the need to focus on how long foods are left out during the serving time.

“There is a critical amount of time in the danger zone– that temperature above 40 degrees and below 135 degrees Fahrenheit where bacteria grow at their fastest rate,” says Kendrick. “You need to control that time and make sure those foods are in the danger zone a minimum amount of time.”

The time limit for most foods in the “danger zone” is roughly four hours. That would include preparation as well as the serving time.

For those who are responsible for serving or providing food for the seasonal gathering at the office or at home, there is plenty to think about beforehand.

“Try to plan a menu that doesn’t contain any of the more risky, potentially more hazardous foods,” says Kendrick. “Avoid raw eggs to make egg nog. Use pasteurized eggs or egg substitute. Think about the ingredients for your dish. Are they potentially hazardous? Can they stay at room temperature for long periods of time, or do they require refrigeration or constant heat? You might want to consider  a balanced menu offering shelf stable foods like cakes, cookies, pretzels and chips to go along with foods that need to go in the refrigerator or need to be served hot. That way you don’t find out the day of the party that you have seven menu items that don’t fit in the refrigerator or that you don’t have enough space on the stove to heat everything at the same time. There are a lot of shelf stable foods that do very well in potlucks and office parties.”

The key is to keep foods at the correct temperature– out of that “danger zone”.

“Prepare a buffet table that is safe,” says Kendrick. “If you serve a chilled dip that is potentially hazardous, keep it in a bowl of ice so that it stays chilled the whole time it is served. Use crockpots or hot plates to keep hot foods hot.”

Since potlucks and office parties involve an extended period of grazing by people, the food is going to stay out longer than normal. Proper planning can save a lot of headaches– and potential stomach aches– for hosts and guests alike.

“If you are putting out a huge bowl of cut vegetables, fruit, or even a large pizza, you might think of having smaller amounts of the same thing on the table,” says Kendrick. “Instead of having one large dish that will sit out four or five hours, maybe have three smaller dishes of the same thing that can be replaced as they disappear with a fresh one that has been at a safe temperature for awhile.”

For those who are expected to bring something to the potluck, make sure to remember the basics of food preparation so important at all times of the year.

Cross-contamination can be a problem as food is prepared. Use clean, sanitized surfaces and utensils. Make sure you are not getting anything from raw, uncooked meats like chicken or turkey into salads or other ready-to-eat products. Using the same cutting board or the same knife for raw meat as well as the ingredients for a salad can lead to problems. Also, washing hands thoroughly after handling raw meat products is imperative.

If you are preparing a hot dish, of course, cook it to its proper temperature and make sure you can keep it at a safe temperature until you arrive at the party. The travel distance should probably be no longer than twenty minutes. If that’s not possible, chill the dish down to a safe temperature, transport it at a safe cold temperature by using an ice chest, and then reheat it after you arrive.

Once again, Kendrick says planning and communication can be a big help.

“Be sure to ask the host or hostess if there will be room in the refrigerator for something you plan to bring, or room in the oven to hold something hot. It is never a good situation when people show up with extra food for a refrigerator that doesn’t have any more room.”

It may be the time of the season for sharing, but when it comes to germs, please keep them to yourself.

“Do not prepare food for others if you are sick,” says Kendrick. “Nobody would think twice about you canceling the party until you are feeling better.”

The same goes for people attending the potluck or party. With so much commingling and so many people handling the food on the table, it is best to stay away and not spread the germs.

Finally, there is the issue of what to do with leftovers. One of the favorite sayings of ODA’s Food Safety Program is “when in doubt, throw it out.” Again, if the food can’t be put back into refrigeration within four hours, it should not be consumed unless it is a shelf stable food.

It all boils down to practicing good food handling, preparation, and storage techniques– not just during the holidays, but 52 weeks a year. It’s no fun when someone is out of luck because of a potluck where the food was not handled properly.

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