How to Share Food Safely, According to a Public Health Expert

“When I go to a potluck, I eat what I bring,” says Justin Herndon, a public health official who has spent a significant portion of his career inspecting food service establishments. And that was before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Herndon claims that as a health officer, he can occasionally compartmentalize and put his hat back so he can mingle and attend normal, finger-food-consuming gatherings in an unchecked domestic kitchen society. But after sharing hundreds of meals with him since he happens to be my sister’s boyfriend, I’m skeptical. I am a ServSafe Manager certified chef by trade who ran a food truck and then a restaurant in Philadelphia for seven years. I know the health regulations very, very well. I’ll definitely make sure to wash my hands with relish in warm water (110-120 degrees) while humming “Happy Birthday” twice when I invite Herndon over to dinner, although the tune I’ve been stuck on lately had on his mind, Christopher Mills was In his viral TikTok videos, he sings “You can’t eat in every house” while reacting in horror to stitched-up scenarios of raw ground beef pressed onto the countertop with his bare hands and spaghetti sifted through a toilet seat will.

As a chef who has overseen countless health inspections (and prepped my staff), I often can’t split myself up. Food trucks set up at Philadelphia’s temporary special events must be inspected at each and every permitted event, as opposed to the one – yes, once a year that traditional restaurants require an inspection. This meant I was supervising inspections up to five times a week (we did a lot of events). When I eat out or go to someone’s house for dinner, I feel like I see everything, every potential health violation, but I can only begin to imagine the hyper-injury vision Herndon must have. I sat him down and gave him a variety of scenarios to navigate from. It’s up to you how willing you are to take his advice on behalf of food safety and how much grace (and dishonesty) you want to use in any given situation.

Scenario: You are at a birthday party with a lot of people you don’t know. There is a birthday cake. Candles were blown out. Someone hands you a piece. How are you?

Herndon says, “I say thank you and then go into the next room where there is a trash can. If this had happened before COVID, I would have asked myself, ‘Do I know the person who blew out the candles?’ and maybe consider eating it. If they did it now, I would lecture them about how inappropriate that is, and then I would try to convince others not to eat the cake. And then I would recommend candleless birthday cakes in the future. COVID is spread by droplets and there are definitely droplets on this cake. If a four-year-old blew out those candles, there’s spit on that cake, not to mention droplets.

Scenario: You go to a party where cheese boards and willow boards are laid out as appetizers. you are famished There is no other food. What is your plan?

“Are there sausages?” he asks. “I would eat the charcuterie because I don’t get sick of it sitting outside. Yes, it could be worse for me than COVID or germs.” But from a food safety perspective, cured meat is low risk. Herndon also asks, “Is there a pair of tongs? Is there stuff on the back that hasn’t been touched yet? If utensils are available I’ll eat, but I’ll focus on what no one else eats stuff up front, everyone looks down and keeps breathing. If it’s at the back, then it won’t be handled that way. If it’s something people don’t like, then it’s forgotten and left untouched. But more than likely I’d wait until I get home to eat.”

Scenario: You are thirsty and there is a shared vending machine.

“I’d like to know that people can’t go upstairs with a used glass and refill their drinks,” says Herndon. My own saliva is all over my glass and if I banged my glass on the spout and felt sick I would be transferring those germs. Not to mention the handle everyone touches to dispense their drink.”

Scenario: Thanksgiving dinner. It’s a pot luck. The food has been out for two hours. What’s on your mind?

“It’s Thanksgiving, so I know the people. It’s only been two hours? Then I’ll drive into town,” says Herdon. “If it’s a family event, I’ve lectured and harassed them enough. If it’s a friend’s luck, I’d eat what I brought.”

How do you get out of difficult situations if you don’t feel comfortable eating the food?

“Sometimes I find myself in a friend of a friend’s house and I am not satisfied with the cleanliness of the surroundings. Then I have to figure out how not to eat dinner,” admits Herndon.

Here’s what Herndon would do:

  • pure lie “I’d probably fake bad diarrhea or something. Or I would tell them I’m intermittent fasting, but I didn’t want to be rude and not show up. But since I’m in the 48th hour of a 72 hour fast, I can’t give up now. You can use this in all scenarios. I also have ‘I’m trying vegan this week.'”
  • When colleagues took him out to lunch at the height of the pandemic, he said, “I only eat one meal a day, and that’s dinner.”
  • What if someone you don’t know hugs you? “I stand stiffly reminding them of COVID.”

So how do you throw a COVID-friendly party that would make your friends who are public health officials comfortable? Have it outdoors, provide masks so anyone who wants to use one doesn’t feel like a lunatic, require guests to be tested for COVID, have a variety of tongs handy, remind everyone clean ones using glasses at the punch dispenser, and maybe consider a candleless birthday cake.

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