This information has been reviewed and adapted for use in South Carolina by P.H. Schmutz, HGIC Food Safety Specialist, and E.H. Hoyle, Extension Food Safety Specialist, Clemson University. (New 02/99.)
Your family may enjoy meals, day after day, and never get sick from foodborne illness. Then comes a big family gathering or a large party. You are handling larger amounts of food; your refrigerator is overcrowded. Food is prepared in advance and sometimes not stored properly. Also, you may serve the food buffet-style and it stands and stands as your guests come and go. People pick over the food. Later on, some may complain of diarrhea, vomiting and other problems. What has gone wrong? The answer may be food poisoning. Bacteria cause food poisoning. All they need to grow is the right combination of time and temperature. If you follow these simple rules you can avoid trouble.
Food that has been contaminated and allowed to remain at room temperature for four hours can cause a gastrointestinal upset. If it takes two hours to make a chicken salad and it is refrigerated overnight and the next day it is left on the buffet table for two hours, the total time at room temperature is four hours. Putting food in the refrigerator slows the contamination process; it does not stop it. The most perishable foods are those containing meat, poultry, seafood, eggs or milk.
Keep Hot Foods Hot (Above 140 °F): Bacteria grow best in lukewarm foods. Keep protein foods such as seafood, poultry and cooked meats hot by using an electric hot tray or chafing dish. Small candle warming units may not keep hot foods hot enough. Never let these foods stand at room temperature for more than two hours (including preparation, storage and serving time).
Keep Cold Foods Cold (Below 40 °F): Cream pies, puddings, seafood salads and many other dishes made with eggs, fish, meat and poultry need to be kept cold. This keeps dangerous bacteria from growing. Do not let these foods stand at room temperature more than two hours (including preparation, storage and serving time).
Poultry & Meats: Are you going to serve roast turkey? Stuffing can be a breeding place for bacteria. Do not stuff the turkey; cook it separately. After mixing a large quantity of stuffing, cook it immediately. Letting large masses of lukewarm stuffing stand at room temperature encourages bacteria to grow.
Before refrigerating or freezing, remove chicken or turkey meat from the bones immediately after cooking. This is a time-consuming process, and often it is done during odd moments between other jobs. This means the food may stand at room temperature for long periods. If the food is contaminated with bacteria and held at room temperature long enough, the bacteria will produce a harmful toxin. Once this toxin is produced in the food, it is not destroyed by ordinary cooking. If ham is sliced or ground, work with small amounts and store properly in refrigerator.
Gravy: Broth and gravy are especially subject to spoilage. Cool leftovers quickly and put them in the refrigerator. Don’t hold broth and gravy more than a day or two. To serve again, reheat and boil for several minutes before serving. Always serve hot.
Sandwiches & Salads: Ham sandwiches, turkey and chicken salads, and deviled eggs need special care. If you serve sandwiches, why not plan to have the kind you can freeze ahead? Thaw them as needed. Are you going to serve chicken salad? Why not freeze the cubes of chicken and use them in preparing the salad? They will thaw as the salad stands, keeping it as cold as possible.
With any salad, there is much handling in preparation and serving. Make sure all ingredients are clean and well-chilled. Mixtures of foods that require several steps and handling such as meats, fish and salads are most likely to be contaminated. Use clean hands, utensils and work surfaces.
Cream Pies & Puddings: Cream, custard and meringue pies and other foods with custard fillings are often involved in food poisoning. Since these foods get soggy if refrigerated too long, it is a temptation to leave them at room temperature. DO NOT DO IT! This encourages bacteria to grow. Fill pastry as close to serving time as possible.
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This information is supplied with the understanding that no discrimination is intended and no endorsement by the Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service is implied. All recommendations are for South Carolina conditions and may not apply to other areas. Use pesticides only according to the directions on the label. All recommendations for pesticide use are for South Carolina only and were legal at the time of publication, but the status of registration and use patterns are subject to change by action of state and federal regulatory agencies. Follow all directions, precautions and restrictions that are listed.