Don't forget food safety when buying food from volunteer organizations

University Park, Pa. -- For many, summer evokes memories of chowing down on barbeque chicken hot off the grill at the church picnic, needing a handful of napkins to get through a sloppy pork sandwich at the fire hall dinner, or gobbling a juicy cheeseburger at a youth baseball game.

While these meals served at outdoor events are a wonderful way for volunteer groups to raise money and socialize, there are a few organizations that may not be using the most sanitary food practices, according to a food-safety expert in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.

"Conducting informal surveys, we've seen some organizations using unsafe food-preparation practices that put their customers at risk," said Martin Bucknavage, food safety extension specialist. "A lot of volunteer organizations sell food to support their activities -- and it's a noble cause -- but it's important for the public to be safe regarding the food they are eating."

Bucknavage provided a few guidelines that consumers should keep in mind when eating at that next fund-raiser:

  • Is there a thermometer in sight? "Color isn't a good indicator of doneness," Bucknavage explained. "In too many instances, people have gotten sick from an undercooked burger or grilled chicken breast because the vendor was not making sure the food was cooked to the right temperature."
  • Hot foods need to remain hot. "Prepared, hot foods need to be kept at 140 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, or served right off the grill, to ensure safety from microorganisms," Bucknavage said, "and when food is being stored, it should be kept in proper food-storage containers. We know of a few organizations that used metal trash cans to store their cooked chicken. This is an awful practice -- they can't control the temperature in a trash can, and the food could react with the galvanized lining, leading to zinc intoxication."
  • Don't forget about cross-contamination. "Raw meat and poultry can contain pathogenic bacteria," he warned. "If the chef is using the same utensils and trays for the cooked and raw foods, these cooked meals can become contaminated with the raw juices containing harmful bacteria."
  • Workers should be following safe food-preparation techniques. "Are the food preparers wearing gloves and changing them anytime they become unclean?" he asked. "Too often, poor personal hygiene leads to foodborne diseases. Workers can contribute bacteria to the food from their own hands, especially when they are touching their hair, unclean surfaces or raw food without washing."

There are a number of pathogens potentially found in raw meat, including E. coli, Salmonella and Campylobacter. All three are causes of food poisoning, which may lead to diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fever and vomiting. On rare occasions, even more serious health problems can result. Certain strains of E. coli, for example, can cause kidney failure in susceptible individuals, such as the elderly or children.

"While the majority of volunteer groups do a great job," Bucknavage said, "don't risk getting sick if you have any suspicions about the quality or safety of food prepared by a volunteer group. If you still want to support their cause, do yourself a favor and just donate money. I's not worth getting sick."

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Last Updated November 18, 2010