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That Makes Me Sick

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That Makes Me SickFood is a basic necessity of life. It sustains us, makes us happy, eliminates hunger and helps us stay healthy. At least it should.

Food should be something that we enjoy without the risk of it making us sick; however, that is not always the case. Sometimes it is as simple as an allergic reaction, and other times it is as complicated as a food-borne illness. As meeting professionals, we have to be aware of basic food safety rules and regulations.

Planners place a lot of trust in caterers and food staff to ensure that the food they serve attendees is safe for consumption. Caterers, restaurants and venues place a lot of trust in manufacturing companies, farms and distribution centers to ensure that the food is safely harvested, farmed or processed. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 76 million people get sick each year from food-borne pathogens. One in four Americans will have or have had food poisoning in their lifetimes.

Food poisoning can be traced to several sources, including contamination in the actual field from which it was harvested or, the most common source, improper food handling techniques. Trusting our vendors, suppliers and planning partners is key to any good working relationship; however, knowing the basics is also important. Our lives and livelihoods are so intertwined that it is good risk management procedure to be aware of basic food safety rules and regulations when planning any type of food function.

How Long Should You Keep Food Out?
Never leave food out for more than two hours. If this timing doesn’t work with your schedule, do what you can to make it work. Shift a scheduled break, or end a session 15 minutes early if you need the time to get people through a service line. If your caterer suggests a time length for leaving food out, follow it.

If you are serving food in a warm environment or outdoors, do not leave it out for more than one hour. Help keep cold food at a proper temperature, set bowls in ice or use chafing dishes filled with ice instead of water.

Never leave food out without proper temperature settings. If you’re serving a buffet, food needs to be kept at 140 degrees Fahrenheit or warmer. Cold food needs to be kept at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or cooler.

Buffet Placement
It goes without saying that warm and cold food should be kept separate. However, what about foods that require no set temperature? What about breads? To avoid cross-contamination of any type, keep your breads in a separate section.

Lay out your buffet by placing the items that will be pulled first—usually cold foods—in front of the line. You want to deplete your cold foods first.

Why Can’t I Take a To-Go Bag with Me?
As a precaution, many conference and meeting venues will not let attendees take a to-go bag with them. Discourage attendees from requesting to-go bags. Since few hotel rooms offer in-room refrigerators, to-go bags increase the potential for food poisoning. Food needs to be refrigerated within the appropriate time window after preparation. You could include a small paragraph about food safety in the conference guide and encourage attendees to “be safe.” It sounds silly, but as a planner, it is due diligence.

Food Preparation Areas
Take the time to look at the kitchens of your venues or caterers. Most are more than willing to give you a short kitchen tour, and if you ask about sanitation and preparation procedure, all are more than willing to tell you their steps or show you their certifications.

All surface areas should be cleaned before, during and after food preparation. Gloves should be worn by kitchen staff.

All food products should be kept at safe temperatures and in separate containers. Raw meats should not be prepared in the same area, or on the same cutting board, as vegetables. Ask how they prevent cross contamination. If the venue or caterer is not willing to tell you, then proceed with great caution.

Signs of Food Poisoning
Food poisoning symptoms can easily mimic the flu, a stomach virus, a really bad hangover or even an allergy. The biggest indicators that you’re dealing with food poisoning rather than some of the other possibilities are duration and severity of symptoms.

According to the National Institutes of Health, the most common symptoms of food poisoning are the following.
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Diarrhea (may be bloody)
  • Fever and chills
  • Headache
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Weakness


Food poisoning symptoms can occur within a few hours to within a few days, which is why food poisoning is so dangerous and difficult to initially diagnosis. Some people may be only mildly affected, and others may be severely affected, yet could have the same strain of food poisoning. Most attendees might think their symptoms are an allergy, a hangover or the flu. The most common types of food poisoning take 12 hours to 24 hours to set in, but some can take up to three days to fully manifest. If you think you or an attendee has food poisoning, it is best to seek medical help. One+

KATJA MORGENSTERN, CMP, is a senior project manager for Meeting Consultants Inc. She is an active MPI member, industry speaker and industry veteran. She can be reached at [email protected].
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