Potlucks can be a yummy way to gather with friends. Everyone contributes to provide the food and keep the food safe.
But our most frequently reported diseases through the summer months are gastrointestinal illnesses, such as vomiting or diarrhea. These illnesses can easily spread to others in the community, either person to person, or through food or water. Although GI illness is just a nuisance disease for most people, it can be severe for some. Those at higher risk of complications include infants, young children, pregnant women, elders, and those with compromised immune systems. The potluck or picnic host can help assure a safe potluck by providing a means to keep hot food hot (above 135 degrees F) and cold food cold (below 41 degrees F). To keep hot food hot, before guests arrive, turn on warming devices such as crock-pots and chafing dishes, or turn the oven on low so serving dishes are warm before placing hot food into them. During the event, keep pans or dishes covered and stir food often to distribute heat.
To keep cold food below 41 degrees, make space in the refrigerator, or have plenty of ice. When using ice to keep food cold, the ice should surround the container up to the top level of the food setting the bowl on top of ice is not adequate. For a large party, clean ice-filled childrens wading pools can provide a serving spot where you can nestle food bowls. Minimize the risk from foods that are likely to be eaten by hand, such as bowls of chips or nuts, by having tongs or other serving utensils ready to go. Folks preparing food to share at a potluck should also pay special attention to food safety basics. Start by washing hands for at least 20 seconds, scrubbing under nails and between fingers. Wash again often, especially any time your hands may have contacted germs. If you or someone in your household is ill, the ill person should stay home and you should not prepare food to serve to others. Consider purchasing prepared food as your potluck contribution. Keep raw meat separate from other foods. Use separate cutting boards for raw and cooked foods; wash and sanitize knives and utensils after contact with raw meats. Make sure to wash fruits and vegetables under running water before using them.
While cooking, keep ingredients at the right temperature so germs do not have a chance to grow in your food. Thaw and keep raw meats in the refrigerator until ready to use. Use a thermometer and cook meats to 145 degrees (fish, whole cuts of beef, pork, or lamb), 155 degrees (hamburger or sausage), or 165 degrees (chicken or casseroles). Think ahead to how you will safely transport your dish to the event, keeping it either hot or cold.
During the potluck, everyone can be mindful to wash hands before eating or serving, and avoid touching food with bare hands. At the end of the event, it is safest to compost or throw away leftovers, rather than save food that has been sitting out. The food workers manual, www.co.thurston.wa.us/health/ehfood/pdf/FoodWorkerManual.pdf, covers tips that allow you to share food with friends and family confidently.
Dr. Diana T. Yu is the Health Officer for Thurston and Mason counties. Reach her at 360-867-2501, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @yu4health on Twitter.