Tailgate Times

Tailgating and food safety: A winning combination

By Benjy Mikel

Food Scientist

 It’s that time of year again. The days are getting shorter and the wind is getting cooler. This is the time of year when football games make you put all else aside. Thousands upon thousands of alumni and fans return to their chosen schools to root their teams on to victory. Many times, especially on the collegiate level, fans make a day or even a weekend outing of their trip as they tailgate.

The tailgate tradition is extremely popular in the South and is enjoyed by one and all. Fans from the ages of 1 (or less) to 100 snack on picnic lunches and treats both before and after the game. Many times the food that is left over from before the game becomes a “victory meal” after the game.

But have you ever gotten home the next day and felt sick? You may have had just a mild stomachache or a headache and a fever, or even worse, diarrhea or vomiting. Odds are that you shrugged it off as a virus or the flu bug. However, chances are you had a mild case of foodborne poisoning caused by something you ate during your football weekend.

Food poisoning is a very common yet seldom reported illness caused by improperly handling foods. Following are some general guidelines tailgaters should follow to be sure of victory over food poisoning on game day.

The game plan

Any good coach knows that he must have a well-thought-out game plan for his team to win the game. The same is true for any dedicated tailgater. To minimize the risk of foodborne illness, think ahead and plan the types and amounts of food you will serve.

Although some foods are easier to use than others, with proper care most all foods can be fit into the tailgate line-up. The most important thing to remember is that whether you start with foods from home or substitute in from commercial (fast food) sources, all foods must be treated with respect and handled carefully. Choose your tailgate foods by how prepared you are to handle them.

Defense, defense, defense

In a football game, a good offense is the best defense. And, when the game is food safety and prevention of foodborne illness, defense is the best method of prevention. To avoid possible contamination, a strong defense with total team effort is necessary.

To win any game takes teamwork and a 100 percent effort from each player. The same is true with food safety. Each person handling foods needs to have good personal hygiene and, most importantly, clean hands. Bacteria can hide under fingernails and on hands and be transferred to foods.

Always wash your hands before handling foods. If a restroom is not available, carry along your own water and disposable clothes or, even better, mix a quarter cup of household bleach in one gallon of water to be used as a sanitizer.

Crucial timing

Any coach knows that other than the players the most important thing to control in the game is time. In food handling, time as well as temperature are important factors in controlling food poisoning. Bacteria that cause food poisoning grow rapidly and gain ground when allowed to remain between 40 and 140 degrees F for too long.

To stop bacteria from scoring a touchdown and making someone sick, never leave foods out at room temperature for more than two hours. Whether made at home or store-bought, foods should be kept cold (below 40 degrees F) or hot (above 140 degrees F).

At no time should foods be allowed to sit out the game in the car. This is a definite penalty. And even though a victory calls for celebration, don’t eat food that has been left out during the ballgame. A good play to have in your playbook would be to have multiple containers of foods, some for use before the game and some for use afterwards. This keeps foods safe.

An ice chest will keep foods cold, but are you aware of the trick play of using an ice chest to keep foods hot? Fill the ice chest with boiling water, empty it out, place the hot food in it, and foods will stay hot. This method works well to keep foods at a safe temperature for about four hours. However, it is important to note that this length of time might be different for individual containers, and that foods should be checked to make sure they are at a safe temperature. A chest close to the size of the hoot food containers works well.

The ‘turnover’

Finally, the one thing every coach dreads is turnover. Things might be going fine, and then all of a sudden a turnover occurs, changing the outcome. The same is true with food safety and tailgating.

In the game of food safety, the turnover is cross-contamination. Cross-contamination happens when the cook lets the ready-to-eat food contact raw food ready for grilling. The cooked foods might be safe, but bacteria are still growing on the raw food and their presence might contaminate the cooked food that is ready to eat. Be sure that plates and utensils used for raw foods are washed before being used with cooked foods.

Food safety is a vital part of tailgating. Just like a ballgame, tailgating takes advanced planning and perfect execution to produce and safe and winning combination. So, as you enjoy tailgating and pulling for your favorite team, remember that food safety is an important part of a winning game plan.