Food is an important part of many holiday celebrations. You can help reduce the risk of foodborne illness for your family and friends during the holiday season by following some basic food safety tips.
Foodborne illness (“food poisoning”) is caused by eating food contaminated with certain bacteria, viruses or parasites. Examples of disease-causing organisms include Salmonella , E. coli and Listeria monocytogenes . These bacteria are sometimes found in or on the following:
- raw and undercooked meat, poultry , fish and their juices
- the surfaces of and/or in the juices of raw fruits and vegetables
- unpasteurized (raw) milk and (raw) milk products, like raw milk, soft and semi-soft cheeses
- raw and lightly cooked eggs
- uncooked flour and uncooked products made with flour, like dough
Since these foods are often part of the menu at many holiday meals and parties (e.g., cheese, fruit and vegetable platters, seafood, turkey, tourtière, baked goods, eggnog and cider), it is a good idea to take extra care when preparing, cooking, serving and storing food during the holiday season.
The most common symptoms of food poisoning are stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and fever.
Most people recover completely from foodborne illness, but some groups are at greater risk of serious health effects, like kidney problems and even death. The groups at greater risk are young children, the elderly, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems.
Minimizing Your Risks
General Food Safety Tips
There are four basic steps you should always follow to help reduce the risk of foodborne illness :
Clean : Wash hands, contact surfaces (like kitchen counters) and utensils often to avoid the spread of bacteria.
- Wash your hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds before and after handling food, and after using the bathroom, changing diapers or touching pets.
- Always wash fresh fruits and vegetables with clean, running water that is safe to drink.
Separate : Keep raw foods separate from cooked and ready-to-eat foods to avoid cross-contamination.
- Ideally, use two cutting boards, one for raw meat, poultry and seafood, and one for washed fresh produce and ready-to-eat foods.
- Never place cooked food back on the same plate or cutting board that previously held raw food, unless it has been washed with soap and warm water.
Cook : Make sure you kill harmful bacteria by cooking foods to the proper internal temperature.
- Use an instant-read digital thermometer and cook to these temperatures:
- 180°F for whole poultry
- 165°F for stuffing, casseroles, leftovers, egg dishes, ground turkey and ground chicken, including sausages containing poultry meat
- 160°F for pork chops, ribs and roasts, and for ground beef, ground pork and ground veal, including sausages
- at least 145°F for all whole muscle beef and veal cuts, like steaks and roasts
When you think the food is almost ready, remove it from the heat source and insert the thermometer in the thickest part of the food, away from bone, fat or gristle. Keep cooking if the proper temperature has not been reached.
- Be sure to wash the thermometer or any utensils that are used on raw or partially cooked foods in between temperature checks.
- Eat hot foods while they are still hot.
Chill : Keep cold foods cold. Bacteria can grow rapidly when food is allowed to sit in the so-called danger zone: between 40°F and 140°F.
- Eat cold foods while they are still cold.
- Remove bones from large pieces of meat or poultry and divide them into smaller portions before storing.
- Throw out perishable food that has been allowed to sit at room temperature for more than two hours. You cannot tell whether food is contaminated with surface bacteria by the way it looks, smells or tastes. When in doubt, throw it out!
Additional Food Safety Tips for Holiday Situations
Raw eggs can contain Salmonella bacteria, so you should not eat uncooked cookie dough, batters or frostings made with raw fresh eggs. Remember, young children are at greater risk for foodborne illness, so they should not be allowed to “lick the spoon” if the dough, batter or frosting contains any raw egg ingredients. Make sure your baked goods are cooked thoroughly.
Uncooked flour can also make you sick if it is contaminated with E. coli bacteria. Do not taste raw dough, raw batter, or any other food product containing uncooked flour. Learn how to safely cook and handle raw flour to avoid the risk of food poisoning.
Store-bought eggnog is pasteurized and does not require heating to kill harmful bacteria. If you are making eggnog at home, you should:
- use pasteurized egg and milk ingredients, which are available at many grocery stores, or
- heat the egg-milk mixture to at least 160°F and then refrigerate in small amounts using shallow containers so it will cool quickly
Fruit juices and ciders
If you are making drinks with fresh fruit juices or cider, check the label to see if the product has been pasteurized. If the juice or cider is not pasteurized or if you are uncertain, you can minimize risks by boiling the product to make sure it is safe for everyone.
Oysters and seafood
Some people enjoy certain raw seafood items, like oysters and sushi during their holiday festivities. However, raw seafood may carry bacteria, parasites or viruses that can cause food poisoning. People who are more vulnerable to the risks of foodborne illness, such as older adults, pregnant women, young children and people with weakened immune systems, should avoid eating raw or undercooked fish and seafood.
Cook stuffing separately in the oven in its own dish, or on the stove top, to a minimum internal temperature of 165ºF. If you choose to stuff your turkey, stuff it loosely just before roasting, and remove all stuffing right after cooking.
Foods stored in oil
Home-prepared products in oil, like herbs, garlic or peppers, are popular as gift items during the holiday season. However, for foods like this to be safe and healthy, they must be prepared and stored properly.
- If home-prepared products in oil are made using fresh ingredients (e.g., fresh herbs, peppers, garlic, etc.), the products should be:
- refrigerated immediately after being made
- discarded if stored for more than one week
- However, if all ingredients added to the oil are dehydrated (e.g., dried herbs and spices), the product can be stored safely at room temperature.
- If you receive a home-prepared gift like this and are not able to find out when and how it was made and stored, it is safer to throw the product out.
For commercially-prepared foods stored in oil, check the label. If the list of ingredients includes salt and/or acids, these products have been preserved and do not present a risk of food poisoning, as long as you follow directions for storage (e.g., refrigerate after opening and between each use).
If you are serving food buffet-style, use warming trays, chafing dishes or crock pots to keep hot foods hot. Keep cold foods cold by putting serving trays on crushed ice. If food remains at room temperature for more than two hours, throw it away .
Also, do not add new food to serving dishes that are already in use. Instead, use a clean platter or serving dish each time you re-stock the buffet.
Provide serving spoons and tongs for every dish served. Even finger foods like cut vegetables, candies, chips, nachos and nuts should have serving tools to prevent contamination between guests.
Traveling with food
As always, keep hot foods hot (at or above 140°F) and cold foods cold (at or below 40°F). Transport hot food in insulated containers with hot packs or wrapped in foil and heavy towels. Transport cold food in a cooler with ice or freezer packs.
- Refrigerate all leftovers promptly in uncovered, shallow containers so they cool quickly. Refrigerate once steaming stops and leave the lid off or wrap loosely until the food is cooled to refrigerator temperature.
- Store turkey meat separately from stuffing and gravy.
- Use refrigerated leftovers within two to three days or freeze right away for later use.
- Avoid overstocking the refrigerator, so that cool air can circulate effectively.
- Reheat solid leftovers, such as turkey and potatoes, to at least 165°F. Bring gravy to a full, rolling boil and stir a few times while reheating.