While the U.S. food supply is one of the safest in the world, some 76
million people get sick from food-borne illness every year, according to the
CDC. And food safety can be a special challenge during the holidays. Not only
is it cold and flu season, but the menu may includes more dishes than there is
room for in the refrigerator or oven. It takes skill, timing and organization to pull off a healthy holiday
meal with all the dishes that need to be kept at proper temperature so bacteria
won`t have a chance to grow.
Further, most guest lists include people who are especially vulnerable to
food borne illness -- older people, young children, pregnant women, or anyone
with a compromised immune system. And your menu may include food
offerings from friends and relatives that have traveled for hours or have been
kept at room temperature for extended time. Advise your guests to put
piping hot food into a container before they leave home and when they arrive,
be sure to refrigerate promptly or reheat to 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
To make sure your holiday dinner is not only delicious but as safe as possible, WebMD asked the experts for their best holiday food safety tips. Here are their top 10 suggestions:
Have a master plan. Chefs do it, and so should you. Consider your refrigerator, freezer and oven space, and how you'll manage to keep hot foods at 140 degrees or higher and cold foods at 40 degrees or below. If you need to use coolers, make sure you have plenty of clean ice and check it frequently to be sure the ice hasn't melted. Whatever you do, don`t rely on the natural outdoor temperature on the porch to keep foods at proper temperature.
Cook to proper temperature -- and use a thermometer. There is simply no other way to determine that food has been cooked enough to kill bacteria. Turkeys, stuffing, side dishes, and all leftovers should be cooked to at least 165 degrees and kept above 140 degrees during serving to be sure that any potential bacteria is destroyed. Remember the golden rule: Keep hot food hot and cold food cold.
Refrigerate leftovers within two hours of preparation. Leaving food out too long is one of the biggest holiday food safety problems. It is so easy to linger around the table, but when food sits outs for more than two hours in the danger zone -- above 40 degrees and below 140 degrees -- it is prime for bacterial growth. Store leftovers in 2-inch deep, shallow containers and make sure the refrigerator is not over-packed and there is plenty of air circulating around the food so it can be properly cooled.
Properly defrost your turkey, or buy a fresh one. If you choose a frozen turkey, allocate 24 hours per 5 pounds to defrost in the refrigerator, and whatever you do, don`t defrost the bird on the kitchen counter. In light of drought conditions in certain areas of the country, defrosting the bird using frequently changed cold water seems wasteful. But it is safe (albeit time-consuming), as long as you change the cold water bath every 30 minutes.
Wash your hands thoroughly and often -- before, during, and after food preparation. Simply washing hands is one of the easiest ways to minimize bacterial contamination and keep your food safe. Wash with hot water and soap, up to your wrists and between your fingers, for approximately 20 seconds.
Wash all fresh produce. Wash even prepackaged greens, to minimize potential bacterial contamination. Make sure kitchen counters, sponges, cutting boards, and knives are all well scrubbed.
Reheat leftovers to 165 degrees. Filling a plate of food and popping it into the microwave for a few minutes may seem safe enough. You really need to use a thermometer to make sure all the food is reheated enough to kill bacteria. Microwaves heat in an uneven manner, so let the covered food sit for a minute or two to let the heat destroy any bugs, then check the temperature all around the plate.
Keep guests (and sticky fingers) out of the kitchen. Holidays occur during cold and flu season, which further compounds the fact that about half of all people have staph aureus bacteria on their fingertips. So it is important to prevent anyone from picking at the food while it is being prepared.
Serve only pasteurized apple cider. Most juices, including apple cider, are pasteurized to destroy any harmful bacteria. While you can buy unpasteurized juice, it will contain a warning that it can cause serious illness in vulnerable people. To be on the safe side, serve pasteurized cider at your holiday gatherings.