'Tis the season for holiday gatherings, feasts with family and friends, and celebrating tradition. The holidays are also a time to use diligent food safety practices so that food-borne illness isn't among the gifts you share with those you love. Read on for tips on safe food preparation, handling those holiday leftovers, and ensuring that gifts of food are safe to enjoy.
Typically, our favorite holiday foods are those made from scratch. In the rush to prepare the holiday feast, it can be difficult to remember to follow basic safe food safety procedures. Foodborne illness can strike anyone; however, there are groups at higher risk for illness, including pregnant women, young children, older adults and people with weakened immune systems.
One of the first steps in the fight against foodborne illness is to clean. Bacteria is one of those guarantees in life; it's everywhere and unavoidable. You can reduce the likelihood of getting sick from bacteria by making sure your hands, food, kitchen and eating environments are clean. Hand washing is a key to food safety. Apply soap and rub hands together under warm running water for at least 20 seconds before and after handling food. Cutting boards and counters should be disinfected regularly during meal preparation.
Secondly, it's important to keep raw meats, poultry and seafood separate from foods already prepared. Juices from raw meats are full of bacteria and can cause cross contamination if they come into contact with other foods.
Finally, take a hot and cold approach to food. Bacteria spread fastest at temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees F. Use a meat thermometer to ensure that food is cooked to safe temperatures, and chill leftovers rapidly after cooking by placing hot foods in shallow pans or by using an ice bath to quickly cool hot foods to refrigeration temperatures.
Leftovers are one of the joys of the holidays, as we enjoy those foods reserved for special occasions for days afterward. However, there are limits on how long you can safely consume holiday treats. Both temperature and time are factors in bacteria growth, so it's important to keep your refrigerator at safe temperature of 40 degrees F or below. Even when stored at proper temperatures, leftovers should be eaten, frozen or discarded within 3 to 4 days.
To enjoy your holiday leftovers safely, refrigerate cooked leftovers promptly-within 2 hours of being cooked. And, when reheating foods make sure previously cooked items reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees F. Sauces, soups and gravies should be brought to a boil to ensure safe temperatures.
It's common to give and receive food items as gifts during the holiday season. Mail order companies offer a wide variety of goodies, ranging from jams and jellies to steaks, fish, and hams. While such gifts are easy to give and a pleasure to receive, not all companies follow appropriate food safety guidelines when shipping food products.
If a product is labeled "keep refrigerated," that's a warning it must be kept cold to be safe. If perishable food arrives warm - above 40 F, don't eat the product. Notify the company and seek guidance on whether the items can be returned. All parties have responsibility in ensuring food gifts are handled properly. It's the company's responsibility to properly package the food items, the shipping company's responsibility to deliver the product on time, and the customer's responsibility to refrigerate it immediately.
For more information and tips related food safety, visit westernuphealth.org and the U.S. Department of Agriculture website at fsis.fda.gov.
Editor's note: Lynne Madison is the director of environmental health at Western U.P. Health Department and a registered sanitarian.