Food Safety Refresher

With the holiday catering season upon us, chances are you’ll be presenting some buffet-style meals for your clients, or even for your own family and friends.  Now is a good time to brush up on food safety. Yes, you know this stuff… all of us should have solid knowledge of food safety and preventing food-borne illness. But it never hurts to refresh yourself on safe food-handling and serving practices—it’s easy to forget in the hustle and bustle of the season.

The following information comes from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).   Food handling safety is broken into four main steps:

Clean:  Wash your hands before handling food. Clean all surfaces and utensils between uses. Wash all fruits and vegetables thoroughly, but DON’T wash meats, poultry or eggs.

Separate:  Keep meats, poultry and eggs separate from other foods, from the time they spend in your grocery cart to the time they’re in your fridge. Use separate cutting boards and plates to prepare proteins, too.

Cook:  Use a meat thermometer to verify that meat and poultry is properly cooked—don’t go by looks.  And keep hot food hot til it’s served—at least 140 degrees to prevent bacteria developing.

Chill:  Perishable foods should be chilled quickly—don’t let them drop to room temperature before putting them in the fridge. Also, don’t marinate or thaw proteins on the counter—letting meat stand for long periods at room temperature is a recipe for food poisoning.

Serving buffet-style meals presents additional safety challenges—it’s all about keeping food at the proper temperature and avoiding contamination. The FDA offers the following advice for presenting a safe buffet:

Serve smaller platters: if guests will be serving themselves over a period of time, then prepare several smaller plates of each dish. Put one plate out at a time, and keep the back-ups either refrigerated or in a 200° oven until they’re needed. Not only is that safer, but guests who eat later will have a more enjoyable meal, too.

Keep food at proper temperatures: use warmers or crock pots to keep hot foods hot—140° or warmer. Any cold food that will be on the buffet longer than two hours should be on ice.

Replace, don’t refill:  Don’t top off partly-empty serving dishes. Wait until they’re nearly empty, then replace the dish with a fresh one.

The Two-Hour Rule: Discard any perishable foods that have been left out for two hours or longer. If you’re serving in a hot environment (90° or higher) then make that the One-Hour Rule.

For more information on food safety, visit www.foodsafety.gov or www.fda.gov.

Is the Food Truck Trend Dead?

Food trucks—at least the trendy, gourmet variety we think of today—hit the scene in 2008 when Kogi BBQ first made the news. Since then, food trucks have exploded in popularity, with everything from schnitzel to banh mi served street-side.

Food truck statistics are hard to pin down, but Foodbeast.com estimates that there are three million food trucks in the U.S. today. Numbers like that hardly indicate that food trucks are a passing fad. You could, however, argue that some of the novelty has worn off. The trend has gone mainstream.

Rachel Tepper, a blogger for Huffington Post, sums it up like this, “If you’re unconvinced, consider this: Taco Bell, Chick-fil-A and even Rachael Ray’s dog food line all have food trucks. Seriously.”

While it may no longer be a hip trend, food trucks remain a viable startup option for chefs and caterers who can’t afford the investment for a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Estimates of the capital investment required to start a mobile food operation range from $10,000 to $40,000, which sounds like a lot until you look at restaurant startup costs, which can exceed 10 times those figures.

The viability of a food truck business depends on many factors, but location is critical. Some states have very favorable environments for mobile food businesses, while others make it tough to overcome the regulatory red tape. Los Angeles is known as one of the better cities in which to operate a food truck business; New York City is notorious for its maze of regulatory complications.

Wherever they roam, food truck operators benefit when they leverage their social networks. Social media is inextricably linked to the success of a food truck; it’s how customers find their favorite trucks at mealtime.

Another blogger, Frances D’Imperio of The Foodess Files, notes, “It’s hard to find a cluster of people standing beside a food truck in Los Angeles, who are NOT on their phones. They are tweeting their experience by the minute, Instagramming their orders, and if they’re like me, blogging on the go.”

Food trucks, by their nature, offer a “bonus” for social media users in that they are perceived as limited opportunities. When a diner posts a food truck find on Facebook, he’s shown that he was in the right place at the right time—he didn’t just have dinner, he had a limited-time-only experience. Who knows when that truck will be back?

Social media was once considered a passing fad, too. Now it’s apparent that social media is becoming a ubiquitous part of how we experience life in general—including meals and dining experiences. Given their appeal to social media users, food trucks will continue to have a unique niche in the market if they continue to leverage that power.

If you’re interested in food trucks as a possible startup business, check out this great infographic on Foodbeast.com.

Cook it at Home? A look at Cottage Food Laws

This year, many states have enacted or expanded cottage food laws. While the specific provisions of these laws vary from state to state, the idea behind cottage food laws is to recognize that the costs associated with commercial kitchens can be prohibitive to very small food businesses (cottage food operators), and to allow these businesses to prepare certain foods in home kitchens.

This is great news for food startups, nonprofit fundraisers, and even home cooks who make extra money by selling food. Before cottage food laws, even bake sales could be considered illegal; any food produced for sale to the public had to be produced in a commercial kitchen. For little guys — farm stands, peddlers and fledgling businesses — the volume just doesn’t support the cost of commercial production, so cottage food laws are critical.

However, cottage food laws have limitations. All states specify that only non-potentially hazardous foods can be produced in home kitchens. That is, foods that have a low risk of developing bacteria– i.e. baked goods without fillings, condiments, dry snack foods, and the like — are permitted, but less stable foods, like meats, must still be produced in a commercial kitchen.

Different states define “cottage food operator” in different ways. Some place a cap on how much revenue you can earn. In Michigan, for example, that limit is $20,000. Once your annual revenue exceeds $20,000, you’re no longer a cottage operator. Other states, like New York, don’t limit how much you can sell, but where you can sell it — farmers markets and temporary boutiques are okay, restaurants and retail venues are out.

In addition, many states still require a permit for cottage food production. Depending on where and to whom you sell your product, you may be required to pay a permit fee, take a class or pass a home inspection before a permit is granted. Permits are obtained from your local health department.

Labeling rules apply, too. In California, food produced in a home kitchen must be clearly labeled as such. Mississippi requires that cottage food operators use this less-than-enticing label: “Made in a cottage food operation that is not subject to Mississippi’s food safety regulations.”

For specific rules in your area, visit the web site for the department of public health in your state. California has easy-to-follow guides to their new cottage food laws at http://www.cdph.ca.gov/.  For a great comprehensive overview of cottage food laws by state, as well as updates on states where advocates are working towards making them happen, visit http://www.cottagefoods.org/.