The Holidays: Celebrating With Safety

Holiday Food Safety

The weather is getting cooler, and as fall and winter holidays approach, many of us are thinking about how we can celebrate with friends, family and food in a safe manner. In addition to the many traditional food safety precautions we should plan to follow, this year there are more adjustments we can make to support our celebrations with pandemic preparedness.

The following food safety tips will help you celebrate while avoiding food safety faux pas. Read on for ways you can make sure that foodborne illness and COVID-19 know they are not invited to the party!

Talking turkey: Thawing, cooking, and avoiding foodborne illness

Turkey and other types of poultry and meat are popular choices for family meals during this time of year—but it’s important to consume them safely. Eating raw or undercooked poultry (and meat) can lead to foodborne illness, which can be very serious. Foodborne illness from undercooked or raw poultry can be caused by Campylobacter, Clostridium perfringens, Listeria monocytogenes and Salmonella. Symptoms of related foodborne illnesses can vary from person to person but are usually associated with nausea, stomach cramps, diarrhea and vomiting (as well as dehydration in many cases).

If you purchase a turkey in advance of your holiday celebration, a great way to keep it fresh and safe before you are ready to cook it is by freezing it. After freezing, proper defrosting techniques are needed to ensure quality and safety. The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) advises that the proper way to thaw a turkey or any other type of meat is NOT to leave it out at room temperature or anywhere else that might fluctuate in temperature. Instead, there are three ways to thaw poultry and meat safely: in a refrigerator, in cold water, or in a microwave.

After your turkey is properly thawed, it should be cooked accurately. Cooking turkey should not be done by “eye-balling” it in the oven. Rather, it should be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165°F—as measured with a food thermometer—in order to destroy any harmful bacteria and reduce the risk of foodborne illness. When checking the internal temperature, use both the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast. If you have stuffed your turkey, the stuffing temperature should also read 165 °F. If you’re having a different type of roasted meat or poultry, use this chart to guide you on the safe internal temperatures.

Baking abounds

Baking cookies, breads and other sweet and savory dishes is also popular during the holidays. In addition to our safe food-handling practices—like using clean utensils, cooking foods to their correct temperatures and storing foods properly to help reduce the risk of foodborne illness—a very important food safety guideline is not consuming raw foods that are designed to be cooked before eating them. Unfortunately for some, this guideline includes raw cookie dough and other raw doughs. These doughs should not be eaten when they still contain raw flour and eggs.

Flour is an agricultural food product that is designed to be cooked before it is consumed. Raw flour should not be eaten because some bacterial contaminants from the grains used to produce flour can still remain in the product before it is cooked—namely Escherichia coli (E. coli). Consumption of harmful strains of E. coli can cause diarrhea, urinary tract infections, respiratory illness, pneumonia and other illnesses. This same line of food-safety reasoning should be used when avoiding eating raw eggs, since raw eggs can harbor Salmonella bacteria.

Safe eating: Now and later

Once your holiday favorites have been properly cooked, how do you keep them safe to eat for the duration of the meal and as leftovers? Once food is set out and ready for consumption, consider using covered chafing dishes or warming trays to keep hot foods hot and a cold source (e.g. ice or a cooler) to keep cold foods cold. Otherwise, food may enter what the USDA calls “danger zone” temperatures, between 40°F and 140°F, a range in which bacteria may multiply quickly. Never leave perishable foods in the “danger zone” for more than two hours—or more than one hour in temperatures above 90°F. After two hours, food that has been sitting out should be put away in your fridge or freezer.

Here are some quick leftovers tips from the USDA on how to enjoy your turkey and other foods in the days following your celebration meal:

  • Check the temperature of your refrigerator and freezer with an appliance thermometer. The refrigerator should be set at 40°F or below and the freezer at 0°F or below.
  • When storing a turkey (or other meat or poultry), it should be wrapped securely to maintain quality and to prevent meat juices from getting onto other food.
  • Eat your refrigerated leftovers within three to four days. If you freeze your cooked turkey, the leftovers can be kept for up to four months.
  • Be sure to reheat leftovers to 165°F. You can use your food thermometer to check the temperature.

Partying with pandemic precautions

Since the virus that causes COVID-19, like many other germs, spreads mainly through person-to-person contact, your most important line of defense against germ transfer is to practice appropriate social distancing. Keeping six feet apart, wearing a mask or face covering, having fewer than ten people at your event, and attending gatherings outside (such as on patios, perhaps with heat lamps to stay warm) are all ways to enjoy socializing in a safe manner.

Another great way to minimize contact is to think about how food and beverages are served when gathering. When hosting or attending events, avoid buffet-style meals and opt for prepping personal portions to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Instead of sharing beverages, bring your own beverage to reduce “buffet-drinking.” And while there is no current evidence to support the transmission of COVID-19 by food, you should still always practice safe food-handling techniques to reduce germ transfer and your risk of foodborne illness.

While it can feel arduous to maintain all the recommended safety guidelines during the current pandemic, it’s best to remain diligent (even in the midst of holiday jubilation) for the health and well-being of us all. We hope these food safety tips will prove helpful to you and your friends and family as you gather, cook, eat, and celebrate this holiday season.