UF/IFAS Q&A looks at holiday meal safety

Thanksgiving dinner. Roasted turkey garnished with cranberries on a rustic style table decorated with pumpkins, vegetables, pie, flowers and candles. It's an absolute certainty the first Thanksgiving dinner did not look like this.
Thanksgiving dinner. Roasted turkey garnished with cranberries on a rustic style table decorated with pumpkins, vegetables, pie, flowers and candles. (Shutterstock)

Whether you dine on a traditional holiday meal this year – or opt for something more exotic — keep safety in mind. That starts with shopping and goes through preparing the feast and storing leftovers.

We talked to Keith Schneider, a UF/IFAS professor of food science and human nutrition and lead author of this UF/IFAS Extension document, about safety tips for holiday meals.

Q: What makes holiday food safety different from everyday meals?
A: We tend to prepare larger meals for more people. This makes the potential for a foodborne mishap just a little bit bigger. No one wants to make anyone sick during the holidays. The good news: it’s easy to avoid this.

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Q: As a general rule, how do you prepare and cook holiday meals safely?
A: For simple, helpful tips, you can go to the Partnership for Food Safety Education’s Fight BAC website. The four key principles of preparing a safe holiday meal are:

  • Keep your kitchen and food contact surfaces clean.
  • Separate foods to prevent cross-contamination.
  • Cook to the proper temperature.
  • Chill foods to prevent pathogen growth.

Q: What are the best practices for planning and shopping for a holiday meal?
A: When we’re talking food safety, the most common area of concern is the turkey. Be careful as you unwrap the turkey. Liquid can escape, which can contain harmful microorganisms. It’s almost impossible to remove a turkey from its package and place it in a roasting pan without getting some liquid in your sink or on your countertops. Always remember to clean and sanitize the surfaces after you remove your turkey. If you buy a frozen turkey, you’re going to need to let it thaw in the refrigerator for about 24 hours for every 4 or 5 pounds of the turkey. Don’t leave a turkey on the counter for an extended period of time (for example, overnight). Remember, we’re trying to keep the temperature at or below 40 degrees to prevent pathogen growth.

Q: OK, we’ve prepared the turkey. Now, we’re going to cook it. How do we do that safely?
A: Once you’ve placed your turkey in the roasting pan and added your favorite herbs and spices, you must cook it at the proper temperature. The USDA recommends that the turkey reach an internal temperature of 165. Some turkeys come with a pop-up indicator to let you know when this temperature is reached; it is recommended that you get a calibrated food thermometer and insert it into the thickest part of the breast.

Q: What are the most common mistakes people make in holiday meal preparation?
A: In addition to not cooking the turkey properly, another typical misstep can happen when we use things like cutting boards to prepare foods intended to be cooked and then use the same cutting boards to prepare a salad. When using cutting boards, utensils, etc., either use a dedicated one or wash them thoroughly between each food prep.

Q: What are the most important guidelines for storing leftovers and eating them?
A: After two hours, foods that have been sitting out at temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees can allow potentially harmful bacteria begin to multiply. The temperature range between 40 and 140 is known as the “danger zone.” The longer foods stay out, the higher the risk of a foodborne illness.

When possible, store foods in appropriate containers and move to a refrigerator as soon as possible. Remember that the larger the storage container, the longer it takes the food to cool down. Try to limit the size of your storage containers to a height of 4 inches. When placing them in a refrigerator or freezer, allow air to circulate around each of the containers to aid in cooling.

Q: What about eggnog? Is there something specific we should know about making it safely?
A: The concern with eggnog is the use of raw eggs and their potential to carry the harmful bacteria Salmonella. If you’re going to make your own eggnog, eggs must be cooked to 160 degrees to kill any pathogens that might be present. Use liquid or pasteurized eggs. These typically can be found next to regular eggs at your grocery store. An egg substitute can also be used. These products have been pasteurized, which means that no further cooking is necessary.

Q: What tips to you have for those cooking pork or seafood this holiday season?
A: Tips for pork are much like the requirements for other whole meat products. The USDA has lowered the recommended safe-cooking temperature for whole cuts of pork from 160 degrees to 145. Fish and other seafood also have the same recommended 145 degrees internal temperature to inactive any pathogens. Poultry still has a recommended internal temperature of 165 degrees.

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