Food Safety: Preventing Foodborne Illness

166pxpotluckSharing a meal with family and friends is a strong part of our Catholic tradition. Our parishes, schools and social service agencies are frequently host to potlucks, spaghetti dinners, clam bakes and other meal-sharing events that draw us together as a community. Much preparation goes into deciding the menu of these events, but we also need to make certain equal attention is given to way in which food is being prepared and served. The Office of Risk Management offers training and resources to help.

What is Foodborne Illness?

There are thousands of types of bacteria present all around us and, despite our perception, not all bacteria are bad. For example, there are beneficial bacteria in cheese and yogurt. However, when harmful bacteria, called pathogens, enter the food supply, they cause sickness, such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and fever. There are millions of cases of foodborne illness each year and certain groups in the population are more susceptible than others -- young children, pregnant women and their unborn babies, the elderly, and those with weakened immune systems. Luckily, most cases of foodborne illness can be prevented.

What Can You Do?

To keep food preparation areas safe and in accordance with health standards, hire at least one manager who is certified in food safety and sanitation. It is also a good idea to periodically train staff in the basic safety and health practices of preparing meals. These practices include washing your hands, countertops, utensils and cutting boards often with hot, soapy water to prevent the spread of bacteria. Also wash utensils and cutting surfaces after you prepare each food item and before you go onto the next. Wipe up spills quickly and wash dish towels in hot water to remove any germs. To sanitize washed countertops and cooking utensils, mix one tablespoon of liquid chlorine bleach with one gallon of water. And never use the same cutting board for vegetables and fruits that you use for raw meat.

Food safety begins and ends with a competent staff that can identify causes of concern and prevent cases of foodborne illness. To educate staff and ensure that safe practices and procedures are followed, write up a brief document on the proper handling and preparation of food and keep it in a place where employees can reference it. In addition, distribute a list of guidelines for how food service managers should react to a case of suspected food poisoning in your establishment to prevent others from becoming sick.

Food service employees should also adhere to the following rules to prevent foodborne illness in your establishment:

  • Defrost food in the refrigerator and never at room temperature. Cook food immediately after thawing.
  • When using marinades, marinate food in the refrigerator and never reuse sauce that was used to marinate meat.
  • Rinse all fresh fruits and vegetables before consuming.
  • Do not let raw chicken or its juices touch other foods.
  • Do not taste food until it reaches a safe minimum internal temperature.
  • Check the internal temperature of food in several places to see that it is cooked evenly and wash the thermometer in hot, soapy water afterwards.
  • Do not use a plate that previously held raw meat, poultry, or fish to serve food.
  • Never partially cook food and finish cooking later because the risk of bacterial growth increases.
  • Don’t overfill the refrigerator because it prevents cold air from circulating. 
  • When cooking in the oven, set the temperature to at least 325°F and keep cooked food at or above 140°F by keeping it in the oven or using chafing dishes or warming trays.
  • Keep cold foods cold at or below 41°F.
  • When reheating food, make sure that it gets to 165°F by checking it with a thermometer.
  • If you are not sure if a food is safe to eat because it has spoiled or has been left out of the refrigerator for too long, throw it out.

Local health department inspections and self-inspections should be encouraged to ensure your institution is doing all it can to keep people safe from illness. It is also important to keep the lines of communication between you and your food distributors open to stay on top of any food recalls.
Once you have followed all of the rules and guidelines for food safety, you are positioned to serve as a food safety resource. Help the entire institution become involved by providing them with food safety information, demonstrating safe practices and promoting your efforts and accomplishments.

For basic food safety questions, the U.S. Department of Agriculture operates a hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854).

Food Safety Training Certificate Class

In an effort to help ensure the health and safety of our program participants and the people they serve, the Office of Risk Management periodically conducts ServSafe® Food Protection Manager Certification courses. The courses are open to all archdiocesan parishes, schools and institutions with food service facilities. For more information about the next training session, go here.

For Volunteers

The USDA publishes a guide called, “Cooking for Groups: A Volunteer’s Guide to Food Safety." The goal of this brochure is to help volunteers prepare and serve food safely for large groups such as church socials and community gatherings.  Please download a copy of this booklet in either English or Spanish:

Cooking for Groups - A Guide for Volunteers

Cooking for Groups - A Guide for Volunteers: Spanish Edition


The saying “Cleanliness is next to Godliness,” couldn’t be more true than in the kitchen, especially when preparing meals. The risk of foodborne illness and cross contamination becomes even greater when cooking for large groups, such as school children and families. Please encourage your food safety workers to become certified in proper food handling, and be sure your volunteers have access to food safety information.