Strike food poisoning off the menu at Christmas

Posted by Nicole Eckersley on 21st December 2010

cooking-christmas-turkeys.jpgHot weather, large, multi-generation gatherings and the rush of the holiday season create a perfect storm for food poisoning, warns Dr Michael Eyles, Food Safety Information Council Chairman.

Inadequate refridgeration, dodgy leftovers, undercooked meat and cross-contamination from meat and seafood to uncooked dishes are the major risks with large home-cooked meals, and the FSIC has offered a variety of tips to help Australians keep food poisoning off the menu in the silly season.

“The statistics show food poisoning should never be taken lightly,” said Eyles. “OzFoodNet, which monitors foodborne illnesses in Australia, estimates 5.4 million cases of food poisoning annually. While most people will recover in a few days, hospitalisation, triggering of chronic, long-term diseases, and even death, can result. The most at risk are the vulnerable populations: the elderly, the young, pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems,” said Eyles.

“Such suffering would certainly ruin the holiday season. The risk of you, your family or friends being a food poisoning victim can be minimised by following the Council’s simple food safety tips.”

Keep your food cold

Effective refrigeration is vital to food safety, particularly dishes containing meats, seafood, dairy and eggs.

  • Clean out the fridge ahead of time, to make room for your and guests’ dishes.
  • Set the refrigerator to 5 degrees or below. The temperature danger zone – between 5 and 60 degrees – is where food poisoning bacteria grow best.
  • Move cold drinks to an ice bucket or bathtub, to make more room for food, reduce the number of times the fridge is opened, and keep guests out from under the cooks’ feet.
  • If serving seafood or fish, ask the fishmonger to pack your purchase with ice, bring it home in a cooler, and move it to the fridge as quickly as possible.
  • When defrosting a turkey, follow the instructions on the packaging, and remember that a whole turkey can take days to defrost – plan ahead.

Keep it clean

Cross-contamination between raw foods, hands and surfaces is a major cause of food poisoning.

  • Before beginning to cook, make sure the kitchen benches, cooking utensils and all hands that will touch the food are clean.
  • Separate foods like meats and poultry from those that won’t be cooked (such as salad vegetables) at every stage – in shopping bags, on benchtops and in the fridge.
  • Never put cooked meat or poultry back on the plate with raw juices, or serve raw marinade as a sauce.

Choose a manageable menu

Do you really need a whole turkey? Perhaps just a breast, or other cuts, would be enough. Limiting the amount of food you cook will decrease food safety risks – less food means easier storage, preparation and cooking, and fewer leftovers.

Sharing menu planning with guests means you can better manage fridge space requirements, and won’t be surprised by an unexpected Christmas trifle.

Cooking food thoroughly is also vital. Large items such as turkeys must be cooked right through. A meat thermometer is an excellent idea, and make sure enough cooking time is allowed.

Watch out for dodgy leftovers

Leftovers, particularly those that have spent a whole lunch out on a table in hot weather, should be assessed with a critical eye.

Dr Eyles suggests that diners follow the 2-4-OUT rule when deciding whether to keep or discard leftovers after lunch.

“Two hours unrefrigerated is generally OK as long as the food is not sitting in the sun,” said Eyles.

“Two to four hours unrefrigerated can be risky. The chance of leftovers causing food poisoning increases if the food is not very fresh when originally served; contains ingredients such as dairy products, or raw eggs; or has been exposed to heat sources, such as the sun. Particular care must be taken with leftovers if they will be eaten later by young children, older people, or those pregnant or unwell.

“After four hours or more unrefrigerated – throw it OUT,” said Eyles.

“Ham will keep well with proper handling. Remove it from its plastic wrap, cover with a clean cloth soaked in water and vinegar so it doesn’t dry out. Store it in the fridge. Reduced salt hams are now becoming popular but will not last as long as old-style, high salt hams so follow instructions on the packaging. If a large amount of ham is leftover cut off a chunk and freeze it for later use.

“The gift of good health is something everyone appreciates, with the only cost being the small attention to detail to ensure the basics of good hygiene and food handling safety tips are followed,” Dr Eyles concludes.