Serving Up Safety

Preparing food for parties, whether they are indoor or outdoor affairs, is tricky.

The last thing a host or hostess wants is to have a guest fall ill because of something in the food.

But it could happen. And it could happen quickly.

A sneeze or a cough can do it. Or perhaps a fly landing on the food.

People can’t cook in an airtight bubble, but they can tighten up their cooking area to keep germs and disease-carrying insects away.

Tony Abate, a certified indoor environmentalist, says to keep cooking areas as clean as possible.

“There are the basics like keeping the food at the right temperature and proper storage,” says Abate, also vice president of AtmosAir Solutions in Fairfield, Conn. “People need to personally protect themselves. Wearing gloves and facemasks are not a bad idea in prep areas.

“You could transmit very small droplets or particles. This is how the COVID virus spread so rapidly. People cough, they breathe and they sneeze, and these droplets get into the air and they impact food.”

He said clean air is also important. Restaurants have ventilation systems and filtration systems, but keeping the air as clean as possible at home can be achieved by making sure range hoods are working well and actively pulling smoke.

“Every residence has a range hood with a filter on it, and it captures a lot of grease and a lot of dirt,” says Abate. “They should be cleaned and most of them are dishwasher safe. You should do it every few cooking events.”

He also urges cooks to use EPA-certified cleaners near cooking areas and to make sure fingernails are clean because they can be source of bacteria as well.

Heading outside poses a whole new set of challenges, especially with insects.

Dr. Mike Bentley, the director of training and education for the National Pest Management Association in Fairfax, Va., says not all insects are the enemy, but there are some that can hang around an outdoor cooking area and cause trouble.

“Not all insects are created equal when it comes to transferring and spreading pathogens that spread disease,” he says. “There are a few problematic insects that we consider public health pests — certain species of flies and cockroaches.”

Bently explains that these insects are “mechanical vectors of pathogens,” meaning they pick up “nasty stuff” and can then transfer it to food.

Taking precautions to ensure a clean cooking area outdoors is even more important because insects can get to the food easier.

Bentley admits that cooking and serving food outside could be a losing battle, but he is not entirely against it. Once the food is prepared, he suggests a tent be used as an outdoor eating area. And he is a big proponent of sealed containers.

“The containers are effective because insects are looking for clues and conducive conditions,” he says. “Bringing food outside is like ringing the dinner bell for them.”

As for the dinner bell for humans, it’s wise to stay vigilant with certain foods, says Mitzi Baum, the CEO of the Chicago-based Stop Foodborne Illness organization.

“Cold salads typically cause illnesses,” she says. “We know what you’re thinking — it’s the mayonnaise, but it’s not. It’s the cooked potatoes, pasta, shrimp, egg or fish in the salad that can become dangerous.

“These ingredients provide the kind of environment that bacteria love to grow in — the mayonnaise not so much. These salads must be kept cold (maximum 40°F) to prevent harmful bacteria from growing at a rapid pace.”

Baum adds that raw or undercooked meats such as chicken and beef should be monitored closely.

Maintaining proper temperatures and replacing some foods throughout an extended party or event is also key.

“Refresh dips, salads, and mains every two hours,” Baum says. “Do not leave cooked chicken — or any other cooked foods — out for more than two hours without keeping hot things hot (minimum 135°F) and cold things cold (maximum 40°F). This prevents bacteria from growing.”