Make It a Food Safe Reunion
By Diane Van, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service
Family reunions and picnics are great for the heart and soul but sometimes not for the body. Many foodborne illness outbreaks have been traced to food served at large family gatherings, for a number of different reasons:
- Lots of cooks in the kitchen: From eccentric aunts to teenage trainees, cooks of varying food-handling skills have prepared the foods for the buffet or gathering. As a result, food may not have been cooked to a hot enough temperature to destroy bacteria, or it may have been left out in the temperature “Danger Zone” (40 to 140 ºF) where bacteria thrive.
- Warm summer days: Making the problem worse is that reunions and big family gatherings are often held in the summer. Bacteria grow and multiply faster in warm, summer months, including the harmful bacteria that can make you sick.
- The Great Outdoors: Another reason for the upswing in foodborne illnesses is reunions and gatherings are held outside when the weather is nice. The safety controls that a kitchen provides (such as thermostat-controlled cooking, refrigeration, and washing facilities) are usually not available.
Given these challenges, what’s the best way to ensure a food safe reunion? My advice is to get back to the basics: Clean, Separate, Cook and Chill.
Clean: Always wash your hands before and after handling food. If you’re outdoors and the site doesn’t have running water, bring water for preparation and cleaning; or pack clean, wet, disposable cloths or moist towelettes and paper towels for cleaning hands and surfaces.
Separate: Be smart and keep foods apart. Cross-contamination during preparation, grilling, and serving food is a prime cause of foodborne illness. Plan ahead and bring extra platters and utensils. Don’t let your favorite uncle take the raw burgers off a plate, grill them, and put them back on the same (unwashed) plate.
Cook: If you are cooking or bringing hot takeout foods, keep hot foods hot (140 ºF or above). Eat hot takeout food within 2 hours of pickup (that includes fried chicken!). Use a grill, campfire or portable stove to heat foods, and bring a food thermometer to make sure the food reaches safe temperatures. Check our Minimum Cooking Temperatures chart for details.
Chill: When you are enjoying food in the great outdoors, always keep cold foods cold (40 ºF or below). If you are traveling with cold foods, bring a cooler with a cold source.
Questions and Answers
Updated August 2, 2010
Q. If you get sick after eating food at a family reunion on a hot day, what is the sickness called besides "food poisoning"?
A. There are a number of different illnesses that result from eating contaminated food. Our Food Poisoning page provides links to details on the most common causes, including potential food sources.
Keep in mind that it's hard to know exactly which food caused the illness. As we discussed in our Complex Mystery blog, “When people get sick from food, they often assume the cause was the last thing they ate before they started feeling sick. That’s often not the case…. The cause could have been something they ate several days ago, something they might not even remember eating.”
I am tempted to print this and post it at family outings. Which brings up the question: How to you prevent too many cooks in the kitchen without offending anyone? Especially at a family event, with most folks offering to help. Tom
Make sure your stove works perfectly first. You don't want to waste all that food.
Being vegetarian helps. People aren't nearly offended if you don't eat the food.
Great article, Diane. Very concise. I am tempted to print this and post it at family outings. Which brings up the question: How to you prevent too many cooks in the kitchen without offending anyone? Especially at a family event, with most folks offering to help. Tom
You really have to be sure that anyone touching the food washes their hands first, I can't believe how many people I see not washing their hands after going potty when I am in a public restroom.
If you do get sick after eating food at a family reunion on a hot day, what is the sickness called besides "food poisoning"? Say you suspect it was from potato salad.
Last weekend I was at a family reunion with 80 people. On our way home my Fiance started to feel sick, saying he felt like he had to vomit. By the time we got back to our house (~3 hours), he was running to the bathroom. His mother also felt ill. After a few phone calls we found out we were not the only ones, 12 of his other relatives were having symptoms at that time, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, low grade fever. He continued to feel ill, dry heave, chills and diarrhea. He looked yellow/greenish and was not making sense with his words. I took him to the ER. They put him on IV fluids (2 L total) and anti-nausea medication. We were there for 5 hours and he went home on Cipro and anti-nausea meds. Most of his family did not end up going into the ER/hospital however one of his aunts is still hospitalized. A few days after we were home I started to not feel well either and had a little bout, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea. We had a great time at the reunion but definitely learned our lesson about food safety.