September 25, 2013 9:55:43 AM
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- A successful tailgate party requires a winning game plan for the food, not just for the football game that follows.
Food safety experts say one in six people gets a food-borne illness each year. While most of these incidents do not require hospitalization and are even blamed on a stomach bug or 24-hour virus, these illnesses are avoidable.
Brent Fountain, a registered dietitian and nutrition specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said time and temperature abuse are the most common mistakes people make at tailgates, picnics and other outdoor events involving food.
"The longer you leave food in the temperature danger zone, which is between 40 and 140 degrees, the greater the chance that bacteria will grow," Fountain said.
Keeping foods out of the danger zone requires plenty of ice, thorough cooking and a careful eye on the thermometer and the clock. Food that has stayed in the danger zone for two hours must be thrown away.
"The best thing is to plan to have no leftovers at the tailgate party," Fountain said.
This goal requires tailgate organizers to plan ahead so there is sufficient food for the anticipated number of people, limiting waste.
Dawn Vosbein, a registered dietitian and Extension family and consumer science agent in Pearl River County, had some tips on how ice fits into the tailgate game plan.
"The ice used to chill drinks should not be used in the cups. You also need an actual scoop with a handle, not just a spare cup, in the ice chest for serving the ice," Vosbein said.
The primary reason for these precautions is to prevent the spread of viruses that may be on hands. The cold and flu season usually has started before football season is over, and infected people can spread viruses by using their bare hands on ice that will go in cups.
Ice is a key player in the successful tailgate because it makes portable refrigeration possible. Fountain suggested using different ice chests for different purposes at outdoor events.
"Have one ice chest for beverages that will be consumed right away, one ice chest that holds ice for drinks and another ice chest for the ready-to-eat foods that must be kept chilled to prevent spoilage," he said. "You also need a separate cooler for raw foods that will be cooked. It's also a good idea to freeze these items ahead of time to make sure they are fresh and safe."
Chilled items need to remain cold on the serving table to stay safe to eat. Commercial products are available for this purpose, but the task can also be accomplished by setting serving dishes in larger bowls of ice. Either consume hot foods within the two-hour safety window or keep them warm by using chafing dishes or portable heat cans.
Provide soap and water if possible for hand washing, but use a hand sanitizer when these are unavailable. Encouraging guests to handle food and drinks with clean hands also cuts down on the possibility of food contamination and the spread of viruses.
A final part of the food safety game plan is knowing when to call it quits. While spoiled food may be easy to spot, foods capable of making a person sick often appear harmless. Bacteria are microscopic, and food contaminated with bacteria does not smell, look or taste bad.
"If food has been left at unsafe temperatures for over two hours, your only safe option is to discard the food," Fountain said.