What is a foodborne illness?
Food contaminated by bacteria, viruses and parasites can make you sick. Many people have had foodborne illness and not even known it. It’s sometimes called food poisoning, and it can feel like the flu. Symptoms may include: stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fever. Symptoms can start soon after eating contaminated food, but they can hit up to a month or more later. For some people, especially young children, the elderly, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems, foodborne illness can be very dangerous. No one wants to spend the holidays in the hospital or, for that matter, feeling miserable. The Centers of Disease Control estimates there are as many as 13 million cases of foodborne illness in the U.S. every year. Most cases of foodborne illness can be prevented by using safe food handling practices and using a food thermometer to check that your food is cooked to a safe internal temperature!
It’s always important to keep foods out of the danger zone, which is between 41°F and 135°F to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria. To do this, just keep hot foods hot, at least 135°F and keep cold foods 40°F or lower. Make sure you have a good food thermometer to check foods for safety.
Preparing and serving holiday buffets
Do not let foods linger during preparation; cook them thoroughly and serve them promptly. Keep hot foods hot with warming trays, chafing dishes or crockpots. Keep cold foods cold by placing serving dishes on crushed ice.
Remember the "2-hour rule" especially when entertaining with a large meal or buffet. Don’t let perishable foods linger for longer than two hours in the danger zone.
Keep replacement dishes of hot food in the oven and extra cold foods cold in the refrigerator or a cooler during the buffet.
Do not add new food to a serving dish that has been sitting at room temperature for more than two hours. Remember also to change serving utensils.
Provide serving spoons and tongs for every dish served. Even finger foods, like cut vegetables, candies, chips/nachos and nuts, should have serving implements to prevent cross contamination between guests.
Traveling with food
Wrap hot food in foil and heavy towels, or carry in insulated containers to maintain a temperature of at least 135°F.
Store cold foods in a cooler with ice or freezer packs to maintain the temperature at 41°F or below. Full coolers keep their temperature better than partially full ones, so add extra insulation to take up unoccupied space. This also prevents containers from sliding, falling over and leaking.
Vegetables, herbs and other foods stored in oil
Home-prepared products in oil can be made safely only by adding dehydrated ingredients to oil. These products can be kept at room temperature. Dehydrated ingredients include ingredients that are very dry and can be kept at room temperature without spoiling, e.g. dried herbs and spices, dry-packed sundried tomatoes, etc.
If home-prepared products in oil are made using fresh or frozen ingredients, e.g. fresh basil, peppers, mushrooms or garlic, they should be kept refrigerated at all times and must be discarded after one week unless properly acidified. These products may be safely frozen for longer storage. Thaw frozen products in the refrigerator. After the products have thawed, they should be kept refrigerated at all times and must be discarded after one week unless refrozen.
Consumers who purchase products made with fresh ingredients from fairs or farmer’s markets or receive them as gifts should check they were constantly refrigerated after they were prepared, and when they were prepared. Discard them if they are more than one week old.
Commercially-prepared products in oil containing an acid (like vinegar) or salt in their list of ingredients are generally considered to be safe. Store them in the refrigerator after opening and between each use. Contact the manufacturer if you have questions about a particular product.
Eggnog and other recipes with raw or lightly cooked eggs
Be sure to handle and prepare these tasty treats safely. Commercial, ready-made eggnog is prepared using pasteurized eggs and does not require heating. Homemade eggnog may contain harmful bacteria if not prepared properly. Prepare homemade eggnog using pasteurized egg products, found in most grocery stores.
If you choose to make eggnog with whole eggs, be sure to heat the egg-milk mixture to at least 165°F. Refrigerate promptly, once steaming stops, dividing large amounts into shallow containers so it cools quickly.
Precautions should also be taken with sauces, mousses and any other recipes calling for raw or lightly-cooked eggs. Use pasteurized egg products or bring egg-mixtures to a uniform temperature of 165°F. All of these foods must be stored in the refrigerator.
Popular holiday beverages, like unpasteurized apple cider and other drinks made from unpasteurized apple cider, may pose a safety risk since they may contain harmful bacteria.
Serve pasteurized ciders or bring unpasteurized cider to a rolling boil before serving. This is especially important when serving cider to children, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems.
Leftovers: storage and reheating
While it is tempting to leave turkey and other foods at room temperature for snacking after a meal, you should refrigerate all leftovers promptly in uncovered, shallow containers so they cool quickly. Refrigerate once steaming stops and leave the lid on or wrap loosely until the food is cooled to refrigeration temperature. Avoid overstocking the refrigerator to allow cool air to circulate freely.
Store turkey meat separately from stuffing and gravy.
Reheat solid leftovers to at least 165°F. Bring gravy to a full, rolling boil and stir during the process.
Use leftover turkey meat, bones, stuffing, gravy and other cooked dishes within four days for best quality or freeze for later use
Giving and receiving gifts of food
It’s lots of fun to get a package through the mail. During this season, many of the packages contain gifts of food – either homemade or from mail order businesses.
Whether it’s baked goods, fruit, candy, shelf-stable canned items or perishable items, like cheese, meats or sausages, it’s always a great idea to know how to tell if it’s safe to eat and what to do with the food once you open the package.
So if you’re giving or receiving, here are a few food safety tips to keep in mind for these special gifts.
Ordering food gift boxes or baskets safely
Ask the company how the food will be mailed. If it’s perishable, it should be delivered as quickly as possible. Ideally, this would be overnight.
Also make sure the outer package of the perishable food will be marked "KEEP REFRIGERATED."
It’s also a good idea to ask if the food items will come with storage and preparation instructions.
Finally, let your friends know you’re sending a gift in the mail, so the food items are handled appropriately. If you’re mailing to a business address, make certain the package will be delivered during business hours.
Receiving gifts of food in the mail
When you receive a food labeled "Keep Refrigerated," open it and check the temperature immediately. It should be at least refrigerator cold to the touch and ideally still partially frozen with visible ice crystals. If the food items are warm, you should notify the company. Do not consume the food. It is the shipping company’s responsibility to deliver the food on time and your responsibility to have someone at home to receive the product.
Remember to refrigerate or freeze the food items immediately after opening.
Mailing perishable food
Food items that are frozen first will stay in a safe temperature range for a longer period of time. After freezing, the food should be packed with a frozen gel pack or purchased dry ice. The frozen food and cold source can then be packed in a sturdy box made of heavy foam or corrugated cardboard.
Fill up any air space in the box with crushed paper or foam "popcorn." Label your package "PERISHABLE – KEEP REFRIGERATED," arrange a delivery date with the recipient and ship the package overnight
Have a Happy and Safe Holiday Season.
Angela Treadaway is a Regional Extension Agent in Food Safety. For any questions on food safety or preparation of vegetables, contact her at (205) 410-3696 or your local County Extension office.