Don't poison the guests: How to keep holiday food safe

The holiday season is a time of great generosity and sharing, but there's one gift no host wants to give: food poisoning. There are, however, simple ways to keep nasty micro-organisms at bay.

Ensuring cleanliness and proper temperatures can help avoid food-borne illness


The holiday season is a time of great generosity and sharing, but there's one gift no host wants to give: food poisoning.

With that in mind, there are simple tips that hosts and those preparing food can follow to ensure everyone keeps feeling fine long after the turkey has been eaten, the eggnog drunk and the cookies nibbled down to the last crumb.

Basically, it comes down to keeping food at the proper temperature at all times, and ensuring that those preparing and serving it wash their hands and use clean utensils and cutting boards.

Foodborneillness happens in different ways.- Brita Ball

"The two biggest concerns are cross-contamination and temperature abuse," says Brita Ball, a food safety expert at the University of Guelph in southern Ontario.

Cross-contamination refers to what happens when people use utensils or cutting boards that aren't clean, which can allow juices with harmful micro-organisms from raw poultry or other items to infect food that's already prepared, like the Brussels sprouts or sweet potatoes that were cooked ahead of time.

Temperature abuse means having improper temperatures for storing, cooking or keeping things cold.

The federal government estimates there are about four million cases of food-borne illnesses in Canada each year,caused by micro-organisms ranging from E. coli, and listeria monocytogenes to salmonella and the marine toxins found in bivalve shellfish.

"Foodborne illness happens in different ways," says Ball.

"You'll get a different experience from different organisms. Some will give you nausea, vomiting and diarrhea or something like that.

"Sometimes it's not the bacteria themselves but it's the toxins that the bacteria produce and that could be a problem as well."

Magic numbers to remember

In Ball's mind, the most important practices to remember are washing hands before preparing food, using clean cutting boards and utensils, and using a thermometer to check the temperatures of food as it is cooking.

Temperature can also become a testy issue at the buffet table. Hosts might just replenish food on the table, putting more salad in a bowl that wasn't quite empty or adding more meat on a platter that has been sitting out for longer than it should.

In all this, there are magic numbers to remember: Don't leave food sitting out at room temperature for longer than two hours if it's not hotter than 60 C or colder than 4 C.

Otherwise you'll get bacterial growth, says Toronto-based registered dietician Marilyn Temple.

"Hot foods should be kept at greater than 140 F which is 60 C and the cold foods kept lower than 4 C or 40 F."

When Ball is at a buffet, she looks over the various foods, determines which ones might have a higher risk of causing problems and steers clear of them.

"I would choose items like pasteurized cheese and crackers, things like that, rather than foods that might have been sitting too long at room temperature, or that I know might have been prepared with raw milk or something like that."

The problem with turkeys

When it comes to specific foods, turkey is one with particular temperature concerns.

"The main thing to remember when you're cooking a turkey is to cook it fully to the temperatures that are recommended by Health Canada and to avoid cross contamination with any raw meat juices to the cooked meat," says Ball.

Also make sure any stuffing is cooked thoroughly by checking its temperature. Ball recommends that stuffing be cooked outside the bird.

Using clean cutting boards and utensils are essential to ensure safe food preparation. (iStock)

Health Canada says turkey should be cooked until the thickest part of the breast or thigh registers at least 85 C (185 F) on a digital food thermometer. If stuffing is cooked inside the turkey, cook it to a minimum temperature of 74 C (165 F).

Ball also cautions about using frozen, pre-stuffed turkeys, something that has become more common.

"It's important that you cook from frozen. Do not thaw those birds, and fully cook them according to the instructions on the package. That's absolutely essential," Ball says.

"There have been some food-borne illnesses associated with that and it's because people have not followed the directions exactly."

A trend toward roasting the turkey for a long time at a low temperature also carries some risk.

"That long cooking time at low temperature could allow bacteria in the turkey to grow to a high enough count, high enough numbers, that could cause a problem," Ball says.

While caution is essential to ensuring food safety, there's also no need to become so consumed with potential risk that some of the seasonal enjoyment food brings is lost.

"There are some foods that are higher risk than others and so we just have to be careful with some foods that we know have a higher likelihood of being contaminated," Ball says.

Raw foods

Raw shellfish and cheeses made with raw milk pose particular risks, especially for people with compromised immune systems.

With raw milk cheeses, says Ball, the two biggest concerns are the potential for E. coli and listeria monocytogenes.

"It's a risk-reward, and some people really like raw milk cheeses," says Ball.

"They have to understand that when they have a raw milk cheese, there's a risk associated with that."  

That's why Health Canada cautions pregnant mothers against eating soft cheeses such as Brie, Camembert and those with blue veins.

In the end, it comes down to common sense and a bit of careful consideration to make sure holiday eating doesn't end badly.

"It's all about the risk you're willing to take," says Ball.

"If I were pregnant or was elderly and felt I had a compromised immune system, then I would be much more careful with the foods I would consume because my immune system may not be able to fight off something that might be in the foods."