Pot luck or covered dish dinners are very popular across the country.
Have you participated in one lately?
Detective Foodsafe® often balks at the idea of dining on pot luck because the opportunity for unsafe food handling is great and food poisoning too often the result.
She isn’t a big fan of buffet restaurants for many of the same reasons that pot luck diners can make you sick – time and temperature abuse leading to the growth of foodborne illness microorganisms.
Not All Practice Food Safety
Don’t assume everyone bringing foods from home practices food safety or is even aware of what things need to be done to handle food safely.
Cross contamination and time/temperature abuse are real possibilities when food is prepared and transported for a pot luck dinner.
We know that every year 1 in 6 people will be the victim of foodborne illness. Many will be sickened with gastrointestinal distress but, for some, this illness will be devastating and can even lead to death.
There are things we all can do when organizing or attending a covered dish dinner that is meant to be friendly and fun instead of dangerous for your health.
Detective Foodsafe’s Tips for a Safe Pot Luck
Most people have heard about people getting sick after a church pot luck social and some have experienced it themselves. While it is a great way to share a meal, sample new foods and spend time with friends, getting sick is a real possibility when uninvited guests (Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria, etc.) come too.
In addition to church socials leading to foodborne illness, there have been workplace infections that actually led to hospitalizations, such as when postal workers in NC became ill after eating shared covered dishes not one day but the next day too!
How about the people in Ohio attending a pot luck who were sickened after eating potato salad? The pathogen was not due to the mayonnaise, but rather from the potatoes which were from a botulism containing home canned potato. One person died after eating this contaminated food.
Protect Yourself at the Next Pot Luck
Here are tips from Detective Foodsafe so you can protect yourself at the next pot luck party:
- On the buffet table, have a plan to keep hot food hot (140 degrees F) and cold food cold (40 degrees F). You could use crock pots, chafing dishes with sterno heaters, warming dishes, hot pads, ice baths, coolers, and other ways to hold the temperature of the food on the serving line during the event. Discourage using slow cookers and hot plates for cooking, just for maintaining temperatures.
- Be aware of the time that the food has been on the serving line entering the temperature danger zone when bacterial growth occurs. Two hours is the limit for holding food on the buffet at your pot luck, after that point you should refrigerator or throw away.
- Provide enough serving utensils so every dish has its own utensil to prevent cross contamination and avoid allergens mixing with other foods. This also discourages people from using their hands.
- Keep handwashing stations, complete with soap, warm water and paper towels and hand sanitizer, readily available and encourage all guests to wash hands.
- Encourage participants to transport their pot luck dishes safely, keeping cold food on ice and hot food insulated. Reheat or cool in refrigerator once it arrives if it is not at proper temperature. Do you have a food thermometer available? Remember to add the transport time into the 2-hour serving time too.
- Ask participants to label or bring notes about the food so those with allergies can determine if they are safe for them to eat.
- Have enough serving plates even if they are paper so that people will use a clean plate for each trip to the serving table.
- Avoid bringing leftovers home, as they will likely be held out of proper temperature from preparation, transporting, serving/holding, and then transporting again. Bacteria will have ample opportunity to grow.
- Before you go, ensure that the facility has clean running water, a place to store cold food (refrigerator) and both stove top and oven to reheat foods as well as plenty of work space and serving space to handle food safely.
- As always — when in doubt, throw it out!
We don’t need to avoid the next pot luck event but we should be aware and take the necessary precautions to keep ourselves and our friends who are invited safe from the uninvited guests trying to make you the next food poisoning victim!