Keep your food at safe temperatures

Farm Forum

“How was your food from the breakfast buffet?” the server asked the couple sitting near us in a restaurant.

“Well, the sausage and potatoes were cold,” she responded.

“I’m sorry about that. I’ll let the manager know,” the server said. He quickly left.

“I really don’t like to complain, but he asked the question,” she said apologetically to her dining companion when the server was out of earshot.

I usually do not listen to other people’s conversations, but my ears perk up when people are talking about potential food safety issues. Besides, their table was about 2 feet from ours. I would have needed earplugs to avoid hearing their conversation.

When the server came to our table to take our order, my husband, kids and I ordered food from the menu and not the buffet. We prefer hot food.

Soon the manager and a chef arrived at the buffet and both had food thermometers. They began measuring food temperatures.

The manager and chef determined that the food at the top of the pans of food was cold, while the food near the heating unit at the bottom of the pan was at the appropriate temperature. They removed the pans of food and returned with fresh food. That was the right thing to do.

If a restaurant inspector had found the food temperatures below 135 F, the restaurant would have been issued a “critical violation.” These violations must be corrected immediately and can affect the overall restaurant food safety “grade.”

The diners were rewarded for their feedback with one meal free. I hope the cold food had no bad side effects for other diners.

What’s the big deal about food temperatures? Bacteria can grow to dangerous levels if food is not held at proper temperatures. Some bacteria produce toxins that are not easily inactivated by reheating. Bacteria double in number about every 20 minutes.

Maintaining appropriate food temperatures is key to keeping food safe for customers in restaurants and for your family at home. Having customers get sick after eating at your establishment is not good for business.

If your family gets sick from your cooking, they might insist you take them to restaurants more often.

Cooking to safe temperatures and keeping the food hot during service are key steps to food safety. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are government agencies that provide food safety guidance, including temperature guidelines.

Some of the temperature recommendations provided by the two agencies are different, so that can lead to a little confusion. When I talk with consumers, I use the USDA requirements, which tend to be a little higher than FDA temperatures.

When I talk with restaurant employees, then I use FDA temperature guidelines. For example, we recommend that consumers hold foods hot at 140 F, based on USDA recommendations. The FDA requires a hot-holding temperature of 135 F. State or local agencies may have stricter guidance than federal guidelines.

What’s a savvy consumer to do? Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Use a calibrated food thermometer to measure food temperatures when you cook so you maintain the quality and ensure the safety of your food.

Do you know the safe temperatures for cooking and reheating? These are the USDA temperature recommendations for consumers:

165 F – poultry, stuffing, casseroles, reheating leftovers

160 F – ground meat

145 F – roasts, steaks, chops (beef, pork, lamb), with a three-minute rest

140 F – holding hot food hot

40 F – refrigerator temperature

0 F – freezer temperature

Finally, according to USDA consumer food safety rules, perishable foods should spend no more than two hours at room temperature. At room or outdoor temperatures above 90 F, food should not be left out more than one hour. Use warming trays, slow cookers or chafing dishes to maintain food temperatures. Visit and click on “food safety” for more information.

If your food is cold at a restaurant, let your server know.

Here’s a tasty way to enjoy some fresh seasonal produce in a novel way.

Buffalo Chicken

Lettuce Wraps

1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into bite-size pieces

1/2 c. buffalo sauce

2 c. plain Panko breadcrumbs

4 to 6 soft lettuce leaves (Boston bibb)

1 c. quinoa, cooked

1/2 c. tomatoes, diced

1/2 c. avocado, diced

Blue cheese or ranch dressing

Green onions (optional garnish)

Preheat oven to 375 F. Lightly grease a baking sheet or line with parchment paper. Toss chicken in buffalo sauce, cover and refrigerate at least 30 minutes. Pour breadcrumbs into a shallow dish. Coat each chicken piece evenly and place on prepared baking sheet. Bake for 30 minutes or until chicken has reached 165 F. To assemble wraps, fill each lettuce leaf with quinoa, tomatoes and avocado. Top with chicken, drizzle with dressing and sprinkle on green onions. These also may be served chilled.

Makes six servings. Each serving has about 280 calories, 5 grams (g) fat, 29 g carbohydrate, 28 g protein and 430 milligrams sodium.