February 01, 1998
Meetings & Conventions: Planner's Portfolio February 1998 Current Issue
February 1998 Food and BeveragePLANNER'S PORTFOLIO:

Food and Beverage


Lessons in Food Safety

Make sure your F&B providers practice proper handling

Mad cow disease that eats holes in people's brains, apple juice tainted with E. coli and strawberries suspected of carrying hepatitis A -- these are serious concerns. Should planners be worried? You bet. Food poisoning accounts for 9,000 deaths each year and as many as 33 million illnesses, reports the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest. Worse, it's difficult to pinpoint how these bacteria end up on your plate -- or the plates of your attendees.

Most bacterial infections occur long before folks make a beeline to the buffet. Salmonella, for example, enters eggs directly from the hen; molds and toxic by-products can develop in grains during the growing season. This, however, doesn't take food and beverage providers off the hook; they are still responsible for proper cooking temperatures and kitchen hygiene practices.

How can you be sure safe food is being served? You may not be in the kitchen personally handling the chicken cutlets, but you can insist upon several precautions to help prevent food poisoning.


The Food Safety and Inspection Service of the Department of Agriculture recommends that during the cooking process, hot foods -- particularly meats -- should reach a temperature of 160 degrees to kill any bacteria. After cooking and before serving, meats should be kept warm at 140 degrees. On the cold side, foods should be refrigerated to 40 degrees. Anywhere between 40 and 140 degrees is the danger zone for contamination.

With this in mind, when doing a site inspection, ask to see the kitchen, preferably when meals are being prepared. If you notice perishable foods, ask how long they've been sitting out and why. (They should be out no longer than two hours.) Are frozen foods defrosting at room temperature? (They should be defrosted in the refrigerator to reduce the opportunity for bacteria growth.) Are wood or plastic cutting boards sterilized? (Wood boards should be microwaved for five minutes; plastic boards should be disinfected in the dishwasher.) When moving to a new task and working with a different food item, do food service employees change to new sanitation gloves?

If anything sends up a red flag, ask the food service manager or chef for an explanation. You are within your rights to express concern.


Salmonella can be killed, but it takes thorough cooking to do it. So stay away from dishes made with raw or lightly cooked eggs, such as Caesar salad, French toast and hollandaise sauces. Hepatitis lurks in live oysters and clams, which filter large amounts of water to obtain food -- water that may contain bacteria. If you choose to serve raw fish or sushi, request that the fish be frozen to kill any parasites, then thawed before serving.

Bacteria-free food is at risk of being cross-contaminated. Shrimp salad, for example, is a wiser choice than seafood salad, in which one kind of seafood can infect the entire dish.

Dishes served at buffets from heating pans can also be the culprit in food poisoning. Food at the edges of the pan may not be hot enough to stifle bacteria growth. To prevent problems, request that all buffet heating pans have covers to maintain heat, and instruct servers to regularly stir the food. It's also a good idea to have each type of hors d'oeuvre served from a separate serving platter.


In 1994, a meal served at the Holiday Inn in Palo Alto, Calif., caused several cases of food poisoning. The Santa Clara County Environmental Health Services Department responded with a food handlers' class for the kitchen staff. Such practices should be in place at all eating establishments. Find out if training classes are required upon each individual's hire and performed routinely thereafter.

It's also wise to identify the facility's food suppliers. Large, well-established companies are more likely to have better safety standards. Check with local and state health departments to make sure the suppliers have passed inspection.

Finally, the caterer or facility should happily provide you with three client references. Check them. Ask about food safety practices, if hot foods were served hot and cold foods served cold, and if any attendees felt nauseated after the function --that's the first sign of food poisoning.

For further information about food safety and food service practices, contact these organizations: FDA Seafood Hotline, (800) FDA-4010; USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline, (800) 535-4555; Pork Information Bureau, (800) 937-PORK; Food Safety Inspection Service Consumer Hotline, (800) 238-8281; Pesticide Hotline, (800) 858-PEST.

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