A central and meaningful part of many holidays, good food has the power to bring friends and family together to celebrate and create new memories.
Without attention to food safety, however, that traditional holiday feast can turn into a host for some unwelcome guests, including viruses, parasites and bacteria like Salmonella, E. coli, Staph aureus and Listeria, said Pam Hill, a certified poison control specialist at the Arkansas Poison and Drug Information Center, operated by the College of Pharmacy at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. These microscopic party-crashers can make you and your guests severely ill, and can be dangerous or even life-threatening, particularly for at-risk populations like pregnant women, the very young, elderly and people with compromised immune systems.
Temperature is key
“People all over Arkansas love to cook and eat good food. Most of the calls we receive involving food safety are related to improper preparation or improper storage,” Hill said.
Since bacteria do not grow well at temperature extremes, Hill continued, the best defense against foodborne illness is to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. She said many instances of illness are caused by “items that have been eaten in the home and have not been cooked fully, or have not been stored at the temperature extremes that are necessary to avoid bacterial growth.”
The United States Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) defines 40-140 degrees as the temperature zone in which many infectious agents will flourish in perishable foods. So, by keeping cold dishes under 40 degrees and hot dishes over 140 degrees, all the way from preparation through serving and consumption, you can go a long way toward preventing any nasty “bugs” from taking up residence in your holiday dinner.
The big bird
“People often fail to cook items fully or to a high enough temperature in the first place,” said Hill. With large items like turkeys it can be especially difficult to tell. She recommends food thermometers as the best way to assure you and your guests that your turkey, stuffing and other hot dishes are heated to and remain at 140 degrees while they are being served. (Refrigerated hot leftovers should also be reheated to that temperature.)
Hill warned that one of the most frequent mistakes people make in cooking turkeys is to neglect to remove the bundle of giblets found inside. “This can result in an undercooked center, so it’s important to always check the cavity of the turkey and clean it out well,” she advised.
She noted another challenge when preparing a turkey is to remember that safe thawing is just as important as safe cooking. And it’s important to allow plenty of time to thaw. A rule of thumb is one day in the refrigerator for every four pounds of bird — meaning a 20-pound bird could spend up to five days in the fridge. (All frozen foods should be kept at 0 degrees — check your freezer settings — until they are ready to be thawed and used.)
Hill said it is always best to refrigerate uneaten food promptly, whether hot or cold: “If you are not eating something, immediately put it in the refrigerator. Don’t leave it out all day to nibble on.” (An added benefit to this safety measure, she pointed out, is that it can help control excess calorie intake for people trying to avoid weight gain during the holidays.)
The FSIS agrees, recommending a “Two-Hour Rule” for food service: part of a good host’s responsibility is to keep track of how long hot or cold foods have been at room temperature and discard anything that has been kept out for two hours or more. And yes, travel time counts towards those two hours, so consider using heat packs or cold packs if you are bringing a dish with you to a gathering or taking “a plate” home.
Leftovers should either be frozen or used within three to four days. “Always check your refrigerator for old leftovers and dispose of them,” said Hill, who recommended marking them with their “date cooked” written on a piece of tape.
For more detailed information about safe food preparation and storage, including charts with weight-based thawing and roasting times for your holiday turkey, check out www.foodsafety.gov.
A.D. Lively is a Central Arkansas-based writer who specializes in health and wellness.