Food safety is a concern that every food business has heard about. Strict legislation has been passed on the topic, and the public has taken note of the damage which can be wreaked when food safety is compromised. Catered events pose a particularly difficult challenge when it comes to food safety, due to the nature of food service at such events. Many additional measures must be taken when handling and serving food at a catered event, as opposed to a regular restaurant. Catering businesses should map out the process from the time the raw ingredients are received, to the time to food reaches their diners, and pinpoint critical control points where food safety may be compromised. These points are often at the transitions between heating and cooling, where there are optimal conditions for harmful bacteria to grow. When analyzing the items and conditions which present a hazard to food safety, as a general rule of thumb, bacteria like what we do: all types of food, at room temperature to body temperature, and, like us, they also require water to grow. When applying this rule, it becomes clear that dry croutons are less of a risk for bacterial contamination than rice, for example.
Catered events are occasionally located in a venue with the proper accommodations for preparing food from start to end. However, oftentimes this is not the case, and caterers must transport the food to the event and reheat it right before service. Food transportation can be
tricky in terms of food safety because, if not transported in a vehicle with a refrigeration unit, the food is likely to rise from the refrigeration temperatures to temperatures which can encourage unwanted microorganisms to grow. For the most part, it is ideal to transport food in refrigerated conditions. You may be wondering how pizza deliveries get away with transporting the pizza with just those pizza delivery bags. The short time in which the delivery is usually done, along with the insulation of the bag, theoretically keeps the pizza at high enough temperatures to not pose a danger for consumption if eaten right away. This is unlikely to work for catered events, where the food is often served over a long period of time, and may have to sit in the transport vehicle for a significant amount of time before it is unloaded.
Heating and Cooling Food
As I stated before, those transitions between heating and cooling foods are the points where food safety becomes a concern. Bacterial growth slows at refrigeration temperature, and stops at freezing temperatures. Most types of bacteria die at high temperatures of around 140 degrees Fahrenheit. That leaves any temperature in the middle as a great temperature for bacteria to grow. Take chafers, for example. They are fit with a cover to prevent food from drying out, and are usually heated over a flame to keep the food nice and warm. Or, in other words, they offer an ideal environment for bacteria. So why are chafers still used at events? The assumption is that food served in chafers will be consumed quickly. The chafers at most events are constantly refilled by the catering staff, with newly heated food. This almost obliterates the chance of food poisoning resulting from this stage in the event catering process.
Paying attention to food temperatures is very important for maintaining food safety, but it is not enough on its own. Sanitary general practices in a venue will help prevent the spread and growth of bacteria. Needless to say, employees should wash their hand before starting to work and when moving from working on one ingredient to another. Yet this is also not enough. In Anthony Bourdain’s book, Kitchen Confidential, he stated that he will not eat in a restaurant with filthy bathrooms. If the venue knows that their customers will see their bathrooms, and they don’t bother to keep them clean, what does that say about their kitchen? Restaurant ratings help customers make informed choices about the places they wish to dine if sanitation is a concern, but catering is not necessarily the same in this manner. A kitchen without the adequate, high level equipment it needs, and detailed and meticulous cleaning on a regular basis, can be a breeding ground for rats, cockroaches, ants, and bacteria. In order to prevent the gradual build-up of dirt to the point of needing to shut down business due to pests or contamination, it is well worth the investment for business owners to require staff to thoroughly clean the entire venue at the end of each day.
Food safety can be a scary subject because of the repercussions slacking can have. However, with the proper measures in place and good food handling and preparation practices, caterers should not have to worry about mishaps at their catered events. Food safety requires monetary and time investment, but it should be a main concern for all food businesses. Catered events present unique food safety risks that are not necessarily relevant to regular food venues. Therefore, special attention should be paid to maintaining the safety of food before and during catered events.