Holiday party potluck – Russian roulette with food safety?

Foodborne illness is very possible and can make a holiday season miserable.

Holiday party potlucks are an opportunity for people to show off their cooking talents. Some people have favorite holiday recipes that they particularly like to show off. For some people these holiday potlucks are the highlight of their season. The holiday spread can be a beautiful display of savory side dishes to decadent desserts. But there lurks a hidden danger – foodborne illness.

When it comes to potlucks, bacteria are the common source of foodborne illness. Since the bacteria are microscopic, they cannot be seen nor smelled. Foodborne illness or food poisoning comes on like a “stomach bug” with the symptoms of diarrhea, fever, nausea or vomiting. Many people do not realize these symptoms are probably caused by pathogens in the food they ate. For some people, a foodborne illness can be deadly, these people include: The very young, the very old and those individuals whose immune system is compromised by a chronic illness, medication or chemotherapy.

Why is there a problem with potluck meals? Many times there are food handling errors that occur, making the food unsafe. Some of the common errors include: Leaving perishable food at room temperature for more than two hours, cooking large amounts of food and then not cooling it quickly enough; or failing to keep hot foods hot or cold foods cold.

Michigan State University Extension recommends four rules to keep potluck foods safe. They are:

  1. Clean: Wash hands, utensils and all surfaces with hot, soapy water before and after preparing food. Once the surfaces have been washed and rinsed, apply a dilute bleach solution (one tablespoon of bleach per gallon of water) to kill harmful bacteria that can remain on the surface.
  2. Separate: Never place cooked food on an unwashed plate or cutting board that has previously held raw meat, fish, eggs or poultry. Do not add freshly cooked food to old food that has been sitting out.
  3. Cook: Cook food to the proper internal temperature. It is important to check for doneness by using a food thermometer.
  4. Chill: Either refrigerate or freeze perishable foods, prepared foods and leftovers within two hours. The refrigerator should have a temperature at or below 41 degrees Fahrenheit. The freezer should have a temperature at or below zero degree.

By following these four food safety rules, you are helping to keep the food you have prepared for that holiday potluck safe for others to enjoy.

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