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Avoiding Potluck Pitfalls
Please address a particular situation my family and I often encounter: the
omnivore potluck. Yes, we do bring one or more vegan dishes for ourselves
and to share. However, is there any tactful way to ask the proverbial
question, "Is there meat in this dish?" Another concern is how long the
prepared foods usually are left out. More often than not at potlucks dishes
remain on the table for long periods of time uncovered and unheated. Is
there any problem with this practice?
Potluck gatherings and parties are lots of fun and a great opportunity to
taste new recipes. Unfortunately, omnivore potlucks can be a challenge for
vegans. They also can be a perfect breeding ground for foodborne pathogens.
Soups, casseroles, spreads, dips, pasta, potato salads, and many other foods
typically sit on buffet tables at room temperature for hours on end. Because
with most potluck meals the host doesn't have control over what dishes
guests bring, there is little control over how foods are prepared, handled,
stored, or served. This is true of vegan, vegetarian, and omnivore potlucks.
Food sensitivities are rampant today. As a result, potluck meals can be
particularly frustrating and even dangerous for people with special dietary
needs. Not only are foods rarely labeled with a complete list of
ingredients, there is the additional hazard of cross-contamination of both
food allergens and foodborne pathogens caused by improper handling or using
a single serving utensil for various dishes.
Most potlucks do not provide ways to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold,
so the pathogens that can cause illness frequently abound. Contrary to
popular belief, vegan and vegetarian foods are just as capable of causing
debilitating food poisoning as animal products. Often people don't associate
a headache, gastrointestinal upset, or vomiting with food they ate at a
potluck, because food poisoning symptoms can take many hours and sometimes
even days to appear. Consequently, safety measures should be taken with
every potluck, whether or not meat is being served.
Remember that food spoilage in progress is almost impossible to detect. It
takes only an hour for bacteria to grow to dangerous proportions in warm,
moist conditions. This growth does not alter the taste, odor, or appearance
of most foods at the time they are being served. Take extra precautions with
high-protein and moist high-carbohydrate foods.
If you are the host of a potluck gathering, here are some recommendations to
keep you, your children, and your guests safe from foodborne illness. If you
are not the host but are attending a potluck event, pass on these
suggestions to the appropriate person in charge. (The following information
is excerpted from the book Raising Vegetarian Children. The book contains a
comprehensive section on food safety, if you would like to read about this
topic in greater depth.)
- Food display and service should be well planned in advance so that
potentially hazardous foods are handled, stored, and served properly and at
the correct temperatures.
- Hot foods must maintain an internal temperature of 140°F or higher
(preferably between 140°F and 160°F).
- Reheated foods must reach 165°F or higher and then be reduced to 140°F or
higher for holding or serving. Soups should be heated to boiling; they then
can be transferred to a covered electric slow cooker (Crock-Pot) for
serving. Casseroles must be reheated to an internal temperature of 165°F and
can be kept hot (140°F or higher) on the buffet table with warming trays,
chafing dishes, or slow cookers.
- Cold foods must be maintained at 40°F or colder during service or
storage. Keep foods cold by nesting dishes in bowls of ice.
- Use a "stab thermometer" for checking the internal temperature of food
(such as casseroles and loaves or chilled dishes) and disposable gloves to
cover cut or scraped hands (or long or painted fingernails).
- Maintain a list of the names, addresses, and phone number of each person
who brought an item to the event, including what they prepared. Foods should
be transported to the event in a clean vehicle with proper temperature
- Make sure that every dish served is accompanied by a card that lists the
ingredients in full. Be sure that guests understand the importance of
listing every ingredient, as some foods can be extremely hazardous for
people with food sensitivities. Of course, this is also a good way for
vegans and vegetarians to find out which dishes are acceptable for them
while alleviating the pressure and awkwardness of asking questions.
- Food handlers should not be ill, have an "asymptomatic" illness, or open
cuts or wounds. Handlers should not be permitted to use tobacco or eat or
drink while handling foods.
- Proper hand washing should be strictly enforced after restroom use,
smoking, drinking, eating, or handling garbage or dirty dishes.
- Have only one person designated to serve. Do not permit self-serve for
adults or children. Do not allow children to handle or serve food.
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