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 Food Establishments

Quiz Your Caterer

Can They Pass This Food Safety Test?
Adapted from an article written by Susan Templin and Laura Fox

Whether you volunteered, were drafted or your job includes party planning, this year's office party is now your responsibility. You turn to a caterer for help.

Not only should you be concerned that this year's "in" fare is served and that the cost is acceptable, you also need to quiz your caterer about food safety practices.

Why? Because food that is not properly prepared, transported and served can lead to food poisoning - not a happy ending to a holiday party.

You may want to ask prospective caterers these questions before you sign one up for your party.

Q: Does the catering company have a permit?

A: Catering companies are required to carry a catering permit in addition to any other permit they may already be required to have. For example, a restaurant that also caters is required to carry both a restaurant and a caterer permit. Permits assure that the local health department has inspected the operator and that they should be aware of safe food handling practices. Check to see if the operator has a certificate from an established food service sanitation course. These courses are offered and accredited by health departments as well as by various professional associations.

Q: Where will the food be cooked?

A: If the food preparation is to take place at the caterer's establishment, plan to visit the facility prior to selection. Obviously, the facility should be clean. Beyond that, make sure there is sufficient refrigeration space for large quantities of food. Ovens should also accommodate large amounts of food so that cooking won't need to be done too far in advance of the party.

There should be separate areas in the kitchen for handling raw and cooked products. When raw and cooked products mix, spoilage and food poisoning bacteria from the raw product can contaminate the cooked product.

Be sure the food will be fully cooked the first time around. Partial cooking can promote the growth of spoilage and food poisoning bacteria. If the food will be cooked at your office, make sure the cooking area is thoroughly cleaned and that you have sufficient heating and refrigeration equipment. Plan enough time for thorough cooking of the food.

Q: How will the food be transported?

A: Whether the cooking will take place at your office or at the caterer's facility, the transportation of the food is critical. All perishable foods must be held at 45F or below to minimize bacterial growth during transit periods. Refrigerated trucks, or at the very least, insulated coolers should be used. Cooked foods that will be transported heated must be held at 140F or above. Usually the caterer will use warming units. Insist on it.

Q: How will the food be kept hot or cold during the party?

A: To remain safe, food should not sit at room temperature for more than two hours. All cold foods should remain at no higher than 45F. This can be accomplished by resting serving plates on a bed of crushed ice. Hot food should be served from chafing dishes or warming trays registering 140F. Caution: Frequently, warmers only hold at 110 - 120F, a good growth temperature for some bacteria.

Q: What is the plan for replenishing foods on a buffet table?

A: The caterer should prepare a number of platters and dishes of each food to be served. The back-up plates should be either refrigerated or kept in the oven prior to serving. When two hours have elapsed or when the platters are empty, they should be removed and replaced with fresh, full trays. It is unsafe to add new food to a serving dish that has already sat out at room temperature over two hours.

Q: What will be done with the leftovers?

A: If the food has been safely prepared and held at safe temperatures throughout the party, it should be safe to enjoy again later. Generally, divide leftovers into smaller portions for quick freezing. Use anything you plan to refrigerate within 1-2 days. Thoroughly reheat before serving anything to be served hot. If there's any doubt about how safe the leftovers are, throw them out.

Q: Do you have references I may contact?

A: You can learn a lot about food safety and quality assurance practices of a catering company by checking references from people or organizations the caterer has served in the past. Ask the same questions of the references that you would ask the caterer directly. Hopefully, the answers from the reference will match those of the caterer. If they do not, then there is a potential problem and you need more information before making your decision.

  1. Article appeared in (FSIS, US Department of Agriculture's) Food News for Consumers, December 1991.

  2. Article by Susan Templin and Laura Fox, contributers to Food News for Consumers.

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Disclaimer: The Illinois Department of Public Health requires cold holding temperatures of 41F or below and hot holding temperatures of 140F or above. Temperatures represented in this article may not meet the approved temperatures of the Illinois Department of Public Health.



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