How to Avoid Food Poisoning During the Holidays

How to Avoid Food Poisoning During the Holidays

Americans love to celebrate the holidays with food, whether it be with a big turkey dinner served with potatoes, roasted vegetables, and stuffing at Thanksgiving, or a crown roast with Yorkshire pudding for the Easter holiday. Sometimes the food has a religious significance, such as the karpas, chazeret or matzoh served at the traditional Passover Seder dinner or, for those who celebrate Ramadan, the must haves may include fattoush salad, ful medammes, and harira soup.  Given the number of holidays in the United States, where there are between 7 and over 300 holidays each year depending on how they are counted, there are ample opportunities to celebrate or commemorate with gastric delights served in homes or places of worship.  It is universally agreed that whatever a given holiday purports to signify, doing so with food can make it that much more significant.

Celebrating safely, then, becomes vitally important.  No family wants to celebrate the Chinese New Year and end up bed-ridden (or worse) during the ensuing festivities.  Yet every year in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2 out of every dozen Americans contract food poisoning, sending 128 thousand of them to the hospital each year and causing 3 thousand deaths. While many of these illnesses come from eating out at restaurants and institutional settings, many more occur in private homes.  By one estimate, 55 percent of all food poisoning cases are the result of the improper cooking and storing of food in home kitchens and another 24 percent the result of failing to wash hands prior to preparing that food.  Only 3 percent of food poisoning cases are attributed to an unsafe food source!

Given the high percent of  food poisoning that originates in home kitchens and food prepared at home, every culinary genius needs to brush up on food safety and proper kitchen hygiene.  These practices can be broken up into four categories known as the “Four Cardinal Rules of a Safe Kitchen”: (1) Careful Food Acquisition; (2) Safe Food Preparation; (3) Food Handling Hygiene and (4) Food Storage and Re-Service.

Careful Food Acquisition: Selecting Food that is Safe

When purchasing or otherwise procuring food, there are a few rules that, when followed, will help reduce the possibility of introducing a dangerous pathogen to holiday guests.  Among these are knowing what “red flags” to be mindful of; avoiding high-risk foods; and proper food delivery.

Red Flags 

For those who purchase their food at a local grocer, a few obvious “red flags” will include checking the packaging and avoiding high-risk foods.  “Red flags” include dented or torn packaging, visible rust around the opening of a package, or food that is too close to the expiration date.  When selecting produce, avoid mushy or moldy food, produce with milky liquid or excessive bruising, or produce that smells rank.  In many instances, this may mean buying from a vendor with a good reputation and that sells a high volume of food.  Higher volume retailers often enjoy higher turn-over, meaning their food is fresher.

Avoiding High-Risk Foods

Fortunately, avoiding red flags is relatively easy.  Avoiding dangerous foods is more problematic given consumer preferences.  For example, unpasteurized cheeses, juices, and other dairy products are quite popular, but unlike the “red flag” issues above, there is no way to see, smell, or even taste the dangerous pathogens they may contain.  Unpasteurized products do not undergo a “kill step” during production, such a heating the product to a temperature that kills harmful bacteria or viruses.   Therefore, while a pasteurized product is free of common bacteria and viruses, such as salmonella or norovirus, even though producers go to great lengths to prevent contamination, a consumer cannot know for certain that the unpasteurized product he or she has purchased will be safe to eat.  Other foods, like deli meats, sushi, or steak tartare, are also possible conduits of bacteria like listeria, a bacteria that due to its unique characteristics poses a special danger to pregnant women.

Proper Food Delivery

Another important step in acquiring food is getting it safely home and storing it properly.  Many people are opting for home delivery, a practice that expended greatly during the COVID pandemic, or have a lengthy commute between their homes and preferred retailer. Sometimes this make sit challenging to keep colder foods at a safe temperature.  When using a home delivery service, inquire if they have a mechanism for keeping dairy, frozen goods, or produce at a proper temperature. Also, inquire how many stops a single delivery service will have to make.  Multiple stops will mean longer delays.  When not using a home delivery service, consumers may want to opt for a grocer closer to home or bring along a cooler to store perishables.  In either case, once cold foods are brought into the home, they should be stored as soon as possible in a refrigerator or freezer.

This practice is especially important during holidays as many visitors and family members have long commutes to the holiday home.  Not only will this make it difficult to keep cold items cold, especially when there is limited refrigeration space in most homes, but many hot dishes will also come to unsafe temperatures during lengthy commutes and during the delay prior to meal time.  Safe handling practices should always be followed, and leaving hot dishes on countertops for significant periods of time can be dangerous.

Safe Food Preparation: Cooking and/or Preparing Food

Cooking and preparing food are seen by many as the heart and soul of holiday gatherings.  Many families will gather in kitchens, often with each preparing or bringing their favorite (or assigned) dish.  With so many dishes travelling from one place to another, and so many people crammed into the kitchen, sometimes it is difficult to maintain proper safe food-handling practices.  To enjoy a safe meal, those preparing the meals must be mindful of proper food preparation guidelines.  These include proper monitoring of food temperatures, food handling surfaces, and the use of food preparation equipment.  

The most obvious safe food-handling guidelines relate to proper temperatures.  Some foods, namely meats, are known to carry harmful bacteria.  One estimate, for example, says that 28 percent of all poultry contains salmonella.  Those who wish to prepare safe food should assume most uncooked meat contains bacteria and cook that meat to the proper internal temperature.  Food must also be maintained at temperatures that inhibit the growth of harmful pathogens, with warm foods held to maintain an internal temperature of 140 degrees and cold foods held at 40 degrees.

But equally important, food preparation should not allow uncooked meats to come into contact with ready-to-eat foods.  When this happens, a process called cross-contamination can occur.  Common causes of cross contamination include using a single cutting board for meat and vegetables or using the same knife or tongs to handle cooked and uncooked food.  And while commercial kitchens have clear rules that require ready-to-eat foods and uncooked foods (such as raw meat) be separated, these rules can become difficult during the hectic holiday get-together.  Simple rules, such as storing ready-to-eat foods above raw meats in a refrigerator, are easy to ignore. 

Food Handling Hygiene

During the holidays, many guests arrive after long drives, including having stopped for gasoline or a quick trip to the grocery store, and will need to wash or sanitize their hands.  While the COVID outbreak has made many Americans more mindful of proper hand cleanliness, most homes do not have a hand sanitation station in the entry!  The first line of defense against food borne illness is to understand that touching common surfaces is the number one method of transferring the most common source of food poisoning known as Norovirus, or more commonly, the virus that causes the “stomach flu.”  Norovirus is the most common cause of food borne illness, but it does not originate in food in most cases.  Instead, the virus is highly resilient, and can live on cold, hard surfaces for hours, and is introduced into food, or on food service surfaces, utensils of serving dishes, through touch.  One person who picks up norovirus at a gas station can contaminate a kitchen and cause dozens or more individuals to develop norovirus within hours or days.  

Of course, proper hand washing is not only to prevent norovirus.  Other pathogens, such as the bacteria Salmonella, Staphylococcus (“staph”), or Escherichia  coli (“E. coli”), all follow the oral-fecal route, which means an infected person has a bowel movement, and if they do not properly and thoroughly wash their hands, can pass it to other people.  This is why restaurants and other food preparation facilities have signs in the bathroom requiring employees to thoroughly wash their hands.  While these signs are not common in the holiday home, they are equally important!

Food Storage and Re-Service

The holidays are often celebrated with more food than can be consumed in a single sitting.  This poses special challenges to maintaining safe food.  Food that is allowed to stay out too long, at room temperature, can quickly become the breeding ground for dangerous pathogens. The two basic rules are: (1) Food should be refrigerated or frozen within two hours of initial service; and (2) leftovers should be cooled quickly, which may require storing them in shallow dishes that allow for faster cooling while not stacking too many dishes in a single refrigerator (have coolers available).  Airtight containers are preferable.

When serving leftovers, ideally they should be brought back to recommended internal temperatures.  All left overs should be thrown out, as a general rule (seek guidance for a specific dishespecially if it contains raw or high-risk ingredients) after  3 to 4 days of refrigeration and after 3 to 4 months of freezing.

Enjoy the Holidays!
By following the “Four Cardinal Rules of a Safe Kitchen,” American families can look back on the memories they create and avoid the nightmares related to food poisoning.  While creating special challenges for those preparing, serving, and enjoying the many home-cooked delicacies, proper knowledge and preparation can go a long way towards keeping friends and family safe for the holidays!