A popular way to celebrate New Year’s Eve is to invite friends and family to a buffet. However, this type of menu, where foods are left out for long periods, leaves the door open for uninvited guests — bacteria, viruses and other pathogens that cause foodborne illness. Festive times for giving and sharing should not include sharing foodborne illness.

Stay away from raw when stirring up egg nog
Only pasteurized milk should be used for egg nog. Raw, or unpasteurized milk often is contaminated with bacteria, viruses and other pathogens, according to public health officials. Numerous outbreaks of E. coli infections have been traced to unpasteurized, raw milk.

Consumers should start with a cooked egg base for eggnog, according to public health officials, regardless of alcohol content. This is especially important if you are serving people at high risk for foodborne infections, such as young children and pregnant women, older adults, and those with weakened immune systems.

To make a cooked egg base:

  1. Combine eggs and half the milk as indicated in the recipe. Other ingredients, such as sugar may be added at this step.
  2. Cook the mixture gently to an internal temperature of 160 degrees F, as measured by a food thermometer, stirring constantly. 
  3. After cooking, chill the mixture before adding the rest of the milk and other ingredients.

Don’t count on alcohol to kill bacteria
Some people think that adding rum, whiskey, or other alcohol to the recipe will make eggnog safe by killing pathogens such as Salmonella. But, if contaminated unpasteurized eggs are used in eggnog, the alcohol will not kill pathogens.

Other options for safe eggnog
You can also use egg substitute products or pasteurized eggs in your eggnog, or you can find a recipe without eggs.

  • With the egg substitute products, you might have to experiment a bit with the recipe to figure out the right amount to add for the best flavor.
  • Pasteurized eggs can also be used in place of raw eggs. Commercial pasteurization of eggs is a heat process at low temperatures that destroys Salmonella that might be present, without having a noticeable effect on flavor or nutritional content. These are available at some supermarkets for a slightly higher cost than unpasteurized eggs. Even if you’re using pasteurized eggs for your eggnog, both the FDA and the USDA recommend starting with a cooked egg base for optimal safety.

General safety tips
Here are some tips from the USDA’s toll free Meat and Poultry Hotline to help you have a SAFE holiday party. You can reach toe hotline at 888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854).

Always wash your hands before and after handling and serving food. Keep your kitchen, dishes and utensils clean. Be sure to watch for splashing on counters and clean them before beginning to prepare the next dish.  Always serve food on clean plates — not those previously holding raw meat and poultry. Otherwise, bacteria which may have been present in raw meat juices can cross contaminate the food to be served.

Cook Thoroughly

Courtesy of the USDA

Research indicates that the color of the meat and the color of the juices are not accurate indicators of doneness. Ground beef may turn brown before it has reached a temperature at which bacteria are destroyed. If you are cooking foods ahead of time for your party, be sure to cook them thoroughly to reach safe minimum internal temperatures.

  • Cook all raw intact beef, pork, lamb and veal steaks, chops, and roasts to a minimum internal temperature of 145 °F as measured with a food thermometer before removing meat from the heat source. For safety and quality, allow meat to rest for at least three minutes before carving or consuming. For reasons of personal preference, consumers may choose to cook meat to higher temperatures.
  • Cook all raw ground beef, pork, lamb, and veal to an internal temperature of 165 °F as measured with a food thermometer.
  • Cook all poultry to a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 °F as measured with a food thermometer at the thickest part, such as the breast.

Use Shallow Containers for serving and storing food
Divide cooked foods into shallow containers to store in the refrigerator or freezer until serving. This encourages rapid, even cooling. Reheat hot foods to 165 °F. Arrange and serve food on several small platters rather than on one large platter. Keep the rest of the food hot in the oven (set at 200-250 °F) or cold in the refrigerator until serving time. This way foods will be held at a safe temperature for a longer period of time. Replace empty platters rather than adding fresh food to a dish that already had food in it. Many people’s hands may have been taking food from the dish, which has also been sitting out at room temperature.

The Two-hour rule
Foods should not sit at room temperature for more than two hours. Keep track of how long foods have been sitting on the buffet table and discard anything there two hours or more. In warm weather foods served outdoors should not sit out for more than one hour. 

Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold
Hot foods should be held at 140 °F or warmer. On the buffet table you can keep hot foods hot with chafing dishes, slow cookers, and warming trays. Cold foods should be held at 40 °F or colder. Keep foods cold by nesting dishes in bowls of ice. Otherwise, use small serving trays and replace them often.

Foodborne bacteria
Bacteria are everywhere but a few types especially like to crash parties. Staphylococcus aureus, Clostridium perfringens and Listeria monocytogenes frequent people’s hands and serving tables. And unlike microorganisms that cause food to spoil, harmful or pathogenic bacteria cannot be smelled or tasted. Prevention is safe food handling.

If illness occurs, however, contact a health professional and describe the symptoms.

Staphylococcus aureus
Staphylococcus, “staph,” bacteria are found on our skin, in infected cuts and pimples, and in humans’ noses and throats. They are spread by improper food handling. Prevention includes washing hands and utensils before preparing and handling foods and not letting prepared foods — particularly cooked and cured meats and cheese and meat salads — sit at room temperature more than two hours. Thorough cooking destroys staph bacteria but staphylococcal enterotoxin is resistant to heat, refrigeration and freezing.

Clostridium perfringens
“Perfringens” is called the “cafeteria germ” because it may be found in foods served in quantity and left for long periods of time on inadequately maintained steam tables or at room temperature. Prevention is to divide large portions of cooked foods such as beef, turkey, gravy, dressing, stews and casseroles into smaller portions for serving and cooling. Keep cooked foods hot or cold, not lukewarm.

Listeria monocytogenes
Because Listeria bacteria multiply, although slowly, at refrigeration temperatures, these bacteria can be found in cold foods typically served on buffets. To avoid serving foods containing Listeria, follow “keep refrigerated” label directions and carefully observe “sell by” and “use by” dates on processed products, and thoroughly reheat frozen or refrigerated processed meat and poultry products before consumption. Listeria even survives freezing temperatures.

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