Take the Luck Out of the Office Potluck Party This Season

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Hopefully, good tidings and good cheer will this year translate into good food and good health. Tis’ the season for office parties and potlucks, and the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s food safety experts want you to keep in mind some basic, common sense rules.

“This is the time of year we see an increase in the number of people who suffer from food borne illness,” says Susan Kendrick, ODA food safety specialist. “It’s a time when you may be serving different kinds of foods than you are used to preparing. Those foods may sit out for longer periods of time. People need to think about the food they might be bringing with them to share, how they handle it, and how safe it is. The holidays are a time to use extra planning and care.”

One of the most basic rules for this time of year is to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. That also means the need to focus on how long foods are left out during the serving time.

“There is a critical amount of time in the danger zone– that temperature above 40 degrees and below 135 degrees Fahrenheit where bacteria grow at their fastest rate,” says Kendrick. “You need to control that time and make sure those foods are in the danger zone a minimum amount of time.”

The time limit for most foods in the “danger zone” is roughly four hours. That would include preparation as well as the serving time.

For those who are responsible for serving or providing food for the seasonal gathering at the office or at home, there is plenty to think about beforehand.

“Try to plan a menu that doesn’t contain any of the more risky, potentially more hazardous foods,” says Kendrick. “Avoid raw eggs to make egg nog. Use pasteurized eggs or egg substitute. Think about the ingredients for your dish. Are they potentially hazardous? Can they stay at room temperature for long periods of time, or do they require refrigeration or constant heat? You might want to consider  a balanced menu offering shelf stable foods like cakes, cookies, pretzels and chips to go along with foods that need to go in the refrigerator or need to be served hot. That way you don’t find out the day of the party that you have seven menu items that don’t fit in the refrigerator or that you don’t have enough space on the stove to heat everything at the same time. There are a lot of shelf stable foods that do very well in potlucks and office parties.”

The key is to keep foods at the correct temperature – out of that “danger zone”.

“Prepare a buffet table that is safe,” says Kendrick. “If you serve a chilled dip that is potentially hazardous, keep it in a bowl of ice so that it stays chilled the whole time it is served. Use crockpots or hot plates to keep hot foods hot.”

Since potlucks and office parties involve an extended period of grazing by people, the food is going to stay out longer than normal. Proper planning can save a lot of headaches – and potential stomach aches – for hosts and guests alike.

It all boils down to practicing good food handling, preparation, and storage techniques– not just during the holidays, but 52 weeks a year. It’s no fun when someone is out of luck because of a potluck where the food was not handled properly.

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