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Food Safety Experts Give Tips for Keeping Catered Food Safe

Food experts give tips to guard catered food against foodborne illness.

AN OUTBREAK OF SHIGELLOSIS recently shuttered a Redwood City, Calif., restaurant when more than 100 people fell ill and one person died after eating there. Health officials suspect contaminated salsa, a result of poor sanitation or improper food handling.

The federal Food Safety and Inspection Service says there are 6 million to 33 million cases of food-borne illness in the United States every year. According to "The HACCP Food Safety Manual" (by Joan K. Loken, published by John Wiley & Sons), five factors are known to cause 80 percent of food-borne illness outbreaks: improper cooling, advance preparation (12-hour time lapse), infected people, inadequate reheating and improper hot holding. (HACCP stands for Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point; these sophisticated food-safety systems analyze the route food takes through a foodservice operation and address each area of risk.)

How can you keep guests safe from the many types of food-borne illness?


For off-site events, you must transport food from your kitchen to the site. The most important thing is to maintain the proper temperature, says Steve Grover, vice president of health and safety regulatory affairs at the National Restaurant Association in Washington. Hot foods should be kept at 140 degrees Fahrenheit or above and cold foods at 40 degrees or below.

If you don't have the means for a refrigerated truck, the next-best thing is an insulated food cabinet for transporting food, according to David McMillan, executive chef of Los Angeles-based caterer An Original Occasion. "They work on a hot principle as well as a cold principle," he says. The food carriers can keep food safe for several hours.

When Michael Purpura, chef and owner of Lena's Restaurant in Nyack, N.Y., transports food in coolers, he keeps his courses separate. "I put all of my hors d'oeuvre together, my first courses together and my entrees together." This means he doesn't have to open the container of entrees until he needs it, helping keep the temperature constant.


Buffets can be breeding grounds for bacteria. In addition to maintaining proper temperatures, caterers and chefs need to watch out for cross-contamination. "Make sure the food is not being contaminated during service by the customers," Grover says. "Supply long handles on the serving spoons and have someone monitoring the area."

When replenishing a buffet, never add fresh items to an existing container. "If you keep adding fresh food on top, you never get to the bottom," he says.

Purpura says he doesn't like to use chafing dishes. "In most cases, I like to use small platters," he explains. "I can make the decor on the table look nicer, and I can replenish faster so I don't have to worry about the temperatures."

Foods that aren't kept at their proper temperature need to be discarded after four hours, Grover adds. "Bacteria can't grow fast enough to cause food-borne illness in four hours."


Some off-premise sites might not offer ideal cooking conditions, leaving the chef to provide workable facilities. "You have to be inventive sometimes," Purpura says, referring to sites that offer nothing better than "Easy-Bake Oven stoves."

"I'm doing a party at a fancy property in Manhattan," he explains. "I'm going to make risotto, but I know there are only convection ovens. I'm going to take the stock and heat it up in coffee urns, then make risotto in the oven. It's so unorthodox, but I know it will come out the same way."


Purpura says he always walks around with a thermometer at work so he can monitor food temperatures constantly. "It's a big scare for me as a caterer and restaurateur for someone who has eaten at my restaurant to say they got a stomachache from it," he says. "The board of health comes in immediately and checks you up and down. If someone gets sick, they can shut you down."

RESOURCES: An Original Occasion, 323/467-2111; Lena's Restaurant, 845/353-7733; National Restaurant Association, 800/424-5156, 202/331-5900

STORAGE to prevent cross-contamination q Store raw meats on lower shelf.

q Store raw vegetables or uncooked menu items above raw potentially hazardous foods (such as meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, etc.).

q Label, date and use FIFO (first in, first out) rotation.

q Refrigerate meat and other potentially hazardous foods at 40 degrees or below.

q Ensure that employee personal hygiene practices prevent contamination of food items.


q Wash hands before beginning work.

q Clean and sanitize utensils and cutting boards and knives.

q Pre-plan product needs and thaw foods under refrigeration.

q Work on small units of food at one time, then refrigerate.

q Pre-chill ingredients for salad preparation.

q Wash vegetables in a sanitized sink.

q Cook all menu items containing potentially hazardous foods to recommended minimum temperatures.

q Verify food temperatures with a calibrated thermometer.

q Use proper tasting procedures; use a clean spoon or a clean sauce dish each time the product is tasted.


q Prepare food as close to service as possible.

q Put food mixtures in small pans and stagger cooking throughout the meal period.

q Maintain hot food temperatures at 140 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.

q Maintain cold food temperatures at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or lower.

q Verify food temperatures with a calibrated thermometer.

q Stir soups, gravies and sauces to maintain even temperatures during heating and cooling.

q Don't use hot holding equipment or steam tables to heat food. They will not heat the food fast enough to get it out of the temperature danger zone.

q Make sure that food being transported is held at proper temperatures.


q Rapidly cool foods from 140 degrees to 70 degrees Fahrenheit in less than two hours and from 70 degrees to 40 degrees in four hours or less.

q Use ice baths.

q Use shallow pans with less than 3 inches of product.

q Divide large batches into smaller units.

q Withhold water; add ice as part of liquid at the end to cool products and utensils.

q Prevent cross-contamination when using ice baths.

q Write cool-down procedures into recipes.

q Verify final temperature with a calibrated thermometer.

q Use clean, sanitized pans.

q Cover food immediately after cooling to 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

q Store on top shelf or upper shelves of refrigerator.

q Label food items; include date and time.

q Do not stack pans; stacked pans cool as one large mass.


q Heat rapidly to 165 degrees Fahrenheit within two hours.

q Determine which equipment or methods work best for reheating.

q Verify final temperature with a calibrated thermometer.

q Maintain temperature of 140 degrees Fahrenheit; verify with a calibrated thermometer.

q Never mix new product into old product.

q Do not reheat or serve leftover food more than once; a reheated product passes through the temperature danger zone three times.

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