With the holiday season in full frenzy, Food Safety News presents a few food safety tips, a compilation of yuletide considerations for cooks and eaters alike. Joining us — and demonstrating top-notch holiday spirit — is North Carolina State University food safety professor and BarfBlog co-author Benjamin Chapman, Ph.D, who answered a call for help with some seasoned observations.
Cooking big meals: When families converge for a holiday feast, the hosts typically get stuck with the task of cooking a bigger, more elaborate meal than usual. While large, multi-dish spreads might take only 20 minutes to devour, they require hours of preparation and thoughtful timing to get everything onto the table punctually:
“Some folks who aren’t used to making big meals might have trouble getting things to come together at the right time and they have dishes sitting outside of safe temperatures for a while,” Chapman said. “My suggestion is to make some stuff ahead of time so that you’re not doing it all at once, and then reheat it when you’re getting ready to eat.”
Cross-contamination: Concerns about cooking and holding temperatures can often overshadow cross-contamination, a big food safety risk when families prepare meals that feature a big hunk of meat as the main event. Cooks handling raw meat need to stay aware of what else they touch and what surfaces and utensils the meat contacts, making sure bacteria doesn’t jump ship to other foods or dishes.
“Cooking is obviously a big factor in food safety, but I’d argue that cross-contamination can be an even bigger risk,” Chapman said. “You’re handling this big turkey with lots of juices and there are all these other foods and surfaces in the kitchen you could be touching — plenty of opportunities for cross-contamination. I feel like we don’t give cross-contamination enough attention because it can be a little complex, but it’s really important to think about.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) details a number of tips for avoiding cross-contamination here.
Cooking thermometers: A thermometer can serve as a simple, effective line of defense against undercooked food. Chapman recommended kitchens stay stocked with a quality cooking thermometer, preferably one with a digital reading. They also fit conveniently into stockings.
“If you don’t have a thermometer, you can’t tell what’s going on inside the food,” Chapman said. “Plus, thermometers make you a better cook because if you err on the side of caution and overcook, you’ll end up with the turkey from Christmas Vacation.”
Potlucks: With potlucks abounding during the holidays, cooks regularly prepare dishes at home and transfer them to another location. Again, Chapman reiterated the importance of keeping foods out of the “danger zone” of 40 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit as much as possible, which can be tricky in car or sleigh rides of much duration.
Eggnog: On December 1, Cal Poly Creamery in San Luis Obispo, CA recalled more than 900 quart-sized bottles of its Farmstead Made Eggnog after testing a sample contaminated with E. coli. No illnesses have been reported in the Cal Poly recall, but each year questions arise concerning the safety of eggnog, more typically related to the potential for Salmonella in raw eggs.
While store-bought eggnog often comes pasteurized, many people use raw eggs in their homemade eggnog. The FSIS estimates that roughly one in 20,000 shell eggs is contaminated with Salmonella.
For those worried about lowering the risk of Salmonella in their homemade eggnog, Chapman recommended using pasteurized eggs, especially if any children or grandparents (or anyone else with a weak immune system) might be partaking. Alternatively, enterprising brewers stuck with raw eggs can heat their concoction to 160 degrees Fahrenheit before serving.
Cream-filled pastries: The popularity of cream-filled pastries like éclairs may not spike during the holidays, but last year a bakery named Rolf’s Patisserie made at least 100 people in Illinois sick with Staphylococcus aureus when they ate cream-filled pastries at various holiday events.
The Illinois incident can be summarized as a case of some food safety no-nos on the baker’s part (no running water for handwashing, insufficient holding temperatures), but high-water-content foods, including cream-filled pastries, are capable of breeding possible contaminants if left to sit for long enough.
As a result of the pastry illnesses, Whole Foods Market recalled gingerbread houses made by Rolf’s Patisserie from stores in 23 states.
Something positive: We don’t want to take the fun out of your festivities, so it’s fortunate that studies on two holiday eats have suggested they may inherently make meals safer. Here’s the good news:
A 2007 study by Worcester Polytechnic Institute found that compounds in cranberries (and their associated sauces and juices) may prevent E. coli from adhering to intestinal walls, thus thwarting infection. The study also noted that those compounds disrupt E. coli bacteria’s ability to communicate with one-another.
Of course, this doesn’t suggest anyone should simply wash down a raw burger with some cranberry juice:
“I buy my food and cook it based on what will reduce my risk,” Chapman said. “I wouldn’t ever plan on eating cranberry sauce specifically for its potential to stop E. coli.”
Finally, chronic stomach cramp-sufferers may consider decorating a Christmas tree for the bathroom: According to a 2008 study by researchers at McMaster University, peppermint oil — found in most candy canes — is an effective treatment for irritable bowel syndrome.