Food Safety for the Holidays...and Every Day

Nothing gets you into the holiday spirit like a feast with family and friends. But even the healthiest foods can be harmful when food safety basics are neglected.

While consumers can't stop these outbreaks from occurring, proper food handling at home will help keep you from exposing guests to dangerous foodborne pathogens such as E.coli, salmonella, campylobacter, staphylococcus and listeria. These organisms pose health risks ranging from a sick stomach to very serious, and sometimes life-threatening, illness.

Here are a few tips and resources to help make your holiday meals safe and healthy.

Cleaning

To prevent the spread of bacteria and foodborne illnesses like E.coli and salmonella poisoning, always wash hands in hot soapy water before preparing food and after using the bathroom, changing diapers, blowing your nose, sneezing and coughing, and after handling pets.

Always wash hands before and after handling raw meat.

Also wash cutting boards, knives, utensils and countertops in hot soapy water after every use, taking extra care to keep meats, eggs and vegetables separated while you work to avoid cross-contamination.

Ideally, separate cutting boards should be used for raw meats and for breads and produce, and they should be replaced once they develop deep grooves, scratches or cuts where bacteria can hide.

Sponges and towels are also breeding grounds for harmful pathogens and should always be freshly washed with soap and hot water.

Cooking

Meat-free options avoid many of the health perils presented by undercooked poultry, ham or beef. But if meat is on the menu, be sure to cook it properly.

Turkey

Before choosing a Thanksgiving turkey, keep in mind that pathogens run rampant in factory farms and slaughterhouses and animals raised in these conditions are more likely to be exposed to foodborne bacteria. For a safer option, look for local, pasture-raised poultry and labels like UDSA Certified Organic, Free Farmed or Certified Humane. If you plan on purchasing a fresh turkey, bring it home no more than two days in advance. See "Organic, Heritage, Sustainable—When Talking Turkey, Does it Matter?" for more.

When preparing a frozen turkey, it should be thawed in the refrigerator at 40 F, never left out at room temperature where bacteria can multiply rapidly (allow 24 hours for every five pounds of turkey). It’s best to thaw your turkey on the bottom shelf to avoid dripping the juices onto other foods. It can also be defrosted in its original leak-proof wrapper in cold water, as long as the water is changed every 30 minutes until the turkey is thawed (Allow about 30 minutes per pound with this method, and cook it immediately after thawing).

When cooking, use a food thermometer to check that the internal temperature of the inner thigh and the thickest part of the breast reach 165 F before removing the turkey from the oven, and let it stand 20 minutes before serving. Always wash the thermometer in between temperature checks.  Cooking turkey to a temperature of 165 F is especially important when serving children, the elderly, pregnant women and the immune compromised. 

The safest way to cook stuffing is to prepare it separately, but if it is cooked inside the bird it should be moist, and packed loosely. Whether cooked separately or inside the bird, stuffing should be cooked to at least 165 F. Place turkey in oven immediately after stuffing (avoid fresh pre-stuffed turkeys altogether).

Ham

Ham is often labeled "fully cooked," and these can be eaten right out of the package. All ham must be processed to USDA guidelines to kill trichina, a worm that is sometimes present in hogs. Fresh hams will bear a safe-handling label and must be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 F, in an oven set to at least 325 F, before eating. Fully cooked hams may be reheated to 140 F.

Beef

Roast beef and steaks may be safely cooked to 145 F for medium rare, 160 F for medium and 170 F for well done. Always use a meat thermometer to check the internal temperature of beef. Raw beef should be refrigerated at 40 F and cooked or frozen by the "Use by" date. Marinating in the refrigerator is safe for up to five days, but be sure to boil any used marinade before it comes into contact with cooked beef. Never save and reuse uncooked leftover marinade.

It may be tempting to rinse meat under the tap before cooking, but it’s not safe. Bringing meat up to safe temperatures is the only way to ensure that it is safe to eat. Rinsing raw meat can spread bacteria to areas around your kitchen, like the sink and counter space, and encourage cross-contamination.

For more on meat safety, see the USDA's meat preparation fact sheets.

Serving

If you're having a buffet-style feast, make sure hot foods are kept hot (above 140 F) in a warming tray, chafing dish, or slow cooker. Likewise, cold foods should be kept cold (below 40 F) over ice. Otherwise, perishables, especially dishes containing meats and cheeses, should not be left out for more than two hours.

It’s a good idea to divide large portions of cooked foods into smaller portions, serving some and storing the rest to maintain safe temperatures. Hot food can either be kept warm in an oven set to between 200 and 250 degrees, or it can cooled and reheated before serving.

To cool foods evenly, transfer items to shallow containers and store them in the freezer or refrigerator until they’re served. Any reheated food should be brought to 165 degrees before serving.

As your buffet platters empty, clear them away and serve fresh food on fresh dishes with clean serving utensils. Desserts made with eggs and milk, like pumpkin pie, must be refrigerated after baking.

Drinks

Unpasteurized apple cider can carry harmful bacteria, which can be a risk to the elderly, young children and individuals with weak immune systems. Pasteurized cider is available in most grocery stores, though some find it to be less flavorful. However, unpasteurized cider is still safe if it is heated to 160 F before serving.

Homemade eggnog can be also be a risk due to salmonella in raw eggs. Again, pasteurized eggnog is safe and available in most stores, but if you prefer to whip up a batch from scratch, use pasteurized egg products instead of shell eggs, or gradually heat the egg-milk mixture to 160 F, measuring the temperature with a food thermometer. For a safe recipe, see the USDA's publication, Food Safety for those Glorious Holiday Goodies!

Storage

Poorly stored foods make food poisoning all too easy. Follow these recommendations to keep foods fresh.

  • Separate leftovers into shallow containers and cool quickly in the refrigerator, rather than leaving them out on the counter.
  • All prepared foods should be covered to prevent cross-contamination.
  • Be careful not to overload the fridge, as there must be enough room for cold air to circulate.
  • Do not store perishable foods on the door of the fridge where the temperatures fluctuate more often.
  • Turkey should be carved off the bone and stored in smaller portions, separate from stuffing and gravy.
  • Try to eat turkey leftovers within four days; stuffing and gravy within two.
  • When reheating leftovers in the microwave, put them in ovenproof glass or ceramic containers—even "microweave-safe" plastic containers may leach chemicals into food when heated. For more tips, see "Food Storage Containers."
  • Leftovers can also be covered efficiently with freezer recommended materials and frozen at 0 F for two to six months.
  • Avoid slowing the freezing process by stacking packages until they are frozen throughout.
  • Only defrost food in the refrigerator, in cold water, or in the microwave; never on the kitchen counter. Any items thawed in the microwave should be cooked immediately.

And once all the work and preparation are out of the way, don't forget to relax and have a great holiday meal!

 

Learn More: 

Foodsafety.gov is the gateway to government food safety information.

The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service has several fact sheets including seasonal food safety, meat and egg preparation and safe food handling.

Visit Eat Local to find local markets in your area for seasonal foods.

"Food Safety Finally First on the Menu"

"Celebrate Local Rarities in Your Thanksgiving Feast"

"Food Essentials: Shop Wisely, Cook Simply, Eat Well"

"Top 10 Reasons to Eat Grass-Fed Meat"

"What to Ponder When Picking Poultry"

 

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