Most private events are not required to meet or provide the same level of scrutiny or health and safety standards that commercial food facilities must meet. You are therefore left to fend for yourself. Fear not. There are many things you as a guest can look out for when you attend or participate in a catered event, large private party, picnic, barbecue etc. that can minimize your chances of contracting a food borne illness or food poisoning. Here’s a short list of common sense observations and actions to consider and be alert to: – Because much of the food at larger events is produced in bulk at another location, the single most common and significant problem you will encounter is temperature abuse. The warmer units commonly used are chafing dishes with one or two small flames underneath.
It may be difficult to find, but look for hot foods to be steaming hot or hot to the touch and cold foods to have a definite cold feel. -One way to limit the problem of temperature abuse is for everyone to eat as soon as they arrive at the event. Do not have or participate in other activities first. Most people who are brining food to an event are not going to bring along the necessary equipment to maintain that food at its proper cold or hot temperature. This is especially important for outside events in warm weather. -Be very distrustful of large deep pots, bowls or containers of thick soups, stews, beans, etc. with a depth of 6 to 8 inches or more, unless you are sure these foods were just recently made i.e. that day. These types of foods in deeper containers take a very long time to cool down and provide an ideal environment for the ubiquitous Clostridium perfrigens bacteria, commonly called the cafeteria bug, since cafeterias traditionally use these types of pots and pans to produce foods in large batches.
-In addition to the deep pots, there are certain other foods I am just more wary of at private events. These include those dishes that took the most time and processing or handling efforts to produce, and are supposed to be kept cold. Cold salads such as chicken, potato, egg or seafood are good examples. Cooking at least kills most pathogenic microorganisms, whereas cold, refrigeration temperatures only slow the growth. I tend to choose only those foods that are recently cooked and served hot.
-Look for undercooked meat, poultry, egg and seafood products especially in salads and meats from the barbeque. Because the meat in the salad is cooked or processed separately in many instances (for probably culinary reasons), it is not always thoroughly cooked. Also, anyone who has ever barbecued knows that unless you are well practiced and familiar with the barbeque you are using, it is difficult to get the meat just right. The barbecue is generally not as efficient in producing heat and cooking evenly as compared to a stove or oven. It is very easy to either over or under cook the foods. Even the big expensive barbecues, with extra insulation and gadgets you see out today still take practice to get it right.
-The barbeque is especially susceptible to cross contamination. The person cooking at the barbecue can be easily distracted during an event or may not have brought separate utensils, plates, etc. to handle the raw meats versus the cooked. Another way to cross contaminate is with marinades. The same marinade used to saturate the raw meats is then basted onto the meat during the final moments of cooking. A big No-No. This marinade could very likely be a microorganism soup depending on the temperature conditions the meat was maintained while marinating.
-It can’t hurt also to take into consideration the person who made the food, if you are able. What is their history of making this dish and are they fairly educated on food safety practices? Did they make an effort to keep the food hot or cold while it is was being transported, displayed and served?
One last tip at a private event – If you see any of the conditions or situations noted above, especially temperature problems and you have a choice between foods prepared at someones home versus foods coming from a known local restaurant, I would recommend choosing the food prepared at the restaurant, diplomatically of course. Even though there are many ignorant food handlers, cooks, chefs etc. at restaurants, they are at least experienced in producing their food everyday and more likely know its potential hazards during preparation. They are also regularly inspected for compliance with health and safety regulations and standards, unlike the private home kitchen. Chow.