By Samantha Liotta, RD
Whether your program has a fueling station that provides pre-packaged ready-to-eat shelf stable foods, or foods needing refrigeration like fresh fruit and cheese, it is important that you are serving safe food to athletes. It’s a topic that can easily be overlooked, especially if you are not sharp on all the details that entail keeping food safe. In fact, very detailed regulations exist in the FDA Food Code, which may vary by state. It’s important to work with your local food sanitation regulatory authority if you have more complex food preparation, such as blending smoothies and distributing meals. And of course, this is all a prime area for collaboration with a sports RD.
Through COVID-19, safe food handling and distribution has also been a point of emphasis. Operations may be simplified to limit contact and rely on quick, pre-packaged grab-and-go fuel, while making a point to tighten up on food safety basics. While some of these situations may not apply to you, or be covered by your team RD or operations staff, often strength and conditioning staff find themselves integrated into some details around fueling. It’s more important than ever to understand, because these pointers will help keep your athletes safe.
Let’s start off with some basics:
HANDWASHING: Wash hands often! Wash hands for 20 seconds with soap and water before and after handling food, touching face or hair, before putting gloves on and restocking clean utensils, and before eating. This goes for athletes, too. If handwashing is not feasible, use alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
GLOVES: Use single-use, disposable gloves when working with food to prevent cross contamination. Always wear gloves when potentially touching ready-to-eat food, like scooping trail mix, mixing sports drinks, or making PB&Js. Change when soiled and after touching allergens, such as peanut butter and tree nuts.
HYGIENE: You probably already monitor yourself and staff for illness, and aim to stay home if experiencing a fever >100.4°F, diarrhea, or vomiting. This is especially important when working with food. Even if only experiencing coughing, sneezing or a runny nose, you should not interact with food. Think about the area you use to prepare food. Any personal eating and drinking should be done at a separate time and/or place to prevent cross-contamination. If sampling food, do so away from the food prep area with a single-use utensil that will be disposed of after. For example, if trying a smoothie, pour the smoothie into a small cup or onto a spoon, eat away from the food prep area, and dispose of the utensil.
Now that you know the basics, here are 4 topics to focus on:
TEMPERATURES: Keep foods safe and out of the temperature danger zone of 40-140°F. At these temperatures bacteria and pathogens start to grow at a rapid rate and the risk of food illness increases. Let’s think about common situations that come into play.
- Keep cold food cold, below 40°F. Do you fuel your athletes with foods like milk, chocolate milk, string cheese, yogurt, hard boiled eggs, deli meat, fruit such as fresh cut melon, or blended smoothies? These should be kept in a refrigerator at all times. Check if your refrigerator has a thermometer inside. This simple investment (generally <$10) will make sure you are storing food at the right temperature, and is a saver in frustrating situations where you find the door left open! If these foods are ever being taken out to a practice or another location where a refrigerator is not available, immerse in a pre-iced cooler to keep cool, and do not allow it to sit for a long period of time. Keep this in mind, as it’s not always safe to put these foods back in a refrigerator to plan to use later! If this doesn’t sound doable for your program, stick with products that don’t need refrigeration like shelf-stable chocolate milk and protein shakes, applesauce cups, dried fruit, granola bars, or jerky.
- Keep hot foods hot, above 140°F. Do you assist with delivered meals on site and have the ability to influence operations to make sure the set-up is optimal? Keep delivery as close to service time as possible to ensure food is not sitting out extended periods of time. If hot foods aren’t being eaten immediately, plan to put the food in a refrigerator to bring the temperature down below 40°F. Also, if athletes are taking hot food home, remind them to immediately eat it, or put it in the refrigerator to later be heated up until steaming.
TIME: Familiarize with these time points.
- 2 hours: Perishable food should not be left out more than 2 hours at room temperature, or 1 hour when the temperature is above 90°F.
- 4 days: Have prepared leftovers in the refrigerator? After 4 days, throw it away.
- 7 days: After you open a package of a food that needs to stay cold, such as jug of milk or package of deli meat, use it or toss it within 7 days or by the expiration date, whichever occurs first.
CLEANING AND SANITIZING: Any time a surface will contact food, it must be cleaned and sanitized. This would be important in a fueling station area, or before placing food down on a surface to be served. Some common surfaces to think about are chest coolers, cutting boards, countertops, snack storage tubs/baskets, and blender jars.
- Cleaning: Removes food and other types of soil from a surface such as a countertop or plate. Clean food contact surfaces between uses.
- Sanitizing: Reduces the number of pathogens on the clean surface to safe levels. Sanitize all high-touch surfaces as often as possible. Likewise, stock fuel for athletes to minimum levels and in a way that limits touching. For food-contact surfaces, ensure the sanitizer you are using is appropriate, such as quaternary ammonia solutions prepared at the right dilution with the right contact time noted on the product’s data sheet. Not all are okay for food-contact surfaces, and may require rinsing, particularly if in your facility you need to use disinfectants known to destroy specific viruses and bacteria like human coronavirus.
EDUCATION: The best thing you can do is continue to educate yourself, staff, and use consistent language with your athletes. Your sports RD, campus, and local health departments are great to connect with on food safety, and here are some resources for you to learn more:
- Food allergies can be life threatening. Educate yourself on the major food allergens, symptoms, and how to eliminate cross contamination: https://www.foodallergy.org/resources/avoiding-cross-contact
- Remind athletes that food safety is important. Free, printable content on topics such as food storage, thawing, chilling, cooking, shopping, and preparation can be helpful to post in common areas. Check some out at the CDC: https://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/communication/graphics.html
- Stay up to date on food recalls: https://www.foodsafety.gov/recalls-and-outbreaks
- Due to the challenging times with COVID-19, the National Restaurant Association is offering some free resources which can be found at: https://www.servsafe.com/Landing-Pages/Free-Courses
This article was written by a Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitian Association Registered Dietitian (RD). To learn more about sports nutrition and CPSDA, go to www.sportsrd.org
“Danger Zone” (40 °F – 140 °F). (2017, June 28). Retrieved August 03, 2020, from https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/safe-food-handling/danger-zone-40-f-140-f/CT_Index
FDA Food Code 2017. (2017). College Park: U.S.Department of Health and Human Services, FDA.
Leftovers and Food Safety. (2020, July 31). Retrieved August 03, 2020, from https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/safe-food-handling/leftovers-and-food-safety/ct_index