Food is a key ingredient for the holiday season. It brings us together at all types of festivities. We look forward to sharing dinners, buffets and canapés with family, friends and colleagues.
And, for those working in food safety, the pressure is on. Production increases, new recipes are introduced, and bigger volumes are demanded to tight deadlines. The same is true for home cooks too. The delivery of fabulous food on the dinner table or canapé plate is far more stressful at this time of year. How many of us regularly cook a 5kg (12 lb) turkey, smoked salmon blinis, chicken liver paté or prawn cocktail? Unfamiliar ingredients, larger quantities and a houseful of hungry people leave the best of us hot and bothered in a kitchen that wasn’t designed to feed crowds.
Food is cooked in ovens that always feel too small. It’s then stored in fridges that never seem big enough. Or it’s relegated to outbuildings and garages for days over the festive period; served to family and friends who come and go. Sprinkle in specialist diets, food allergies and relatives with questionable food-hygiene habits and you have the perfect recipe for foodborne misfortune.
So, in the spirit of goodwill to all, and for the safest, happiest of holiday seasons, follow the BSI food team’s tips for a safe-food Christmas!
Keep it clean
Start off in a clean kitchen, making sure work surfaces and utensils are clean. If you have a lot of food to cook at one time, working in a consistently clean and tidy space really cuts down on risks. Clean as you go. Always wash up and clean before starting a new one. This practice also cuts down on the friction between chefs, as everyone negotiates tight working spaces.
Wash your hands with soap and water before you start preparing and food and ask any helpers to do the same. Kids (of all ages) often offer to lend a hand in the kitchen when it comes time to do Christmas baking. This can involve a large amount of bowl and finger-licking, so a reminder to wash anything associated with this afterwards.
Wash your hands after preparing ALL raw foods–especially the turkey or any meat–to avoid spreading bacteria to another festive fare.
Separate raw and cooked foods
This is easy to say, but sometimes it’s tricky to find space. Raw meat and fish should be stored at the bottom of the refrigerator, to avoid contamination of any other foods. One chef told me a horrifying story of his gran’s Christmas trifle dessert. When taken out of the fridge the whipped cream turned a surprising shade of pink. Further investigation revealed that this was due to the juices from a raw piece of beef dripping from the shelf above. E-coli is a gift that keeps on giving, but in a very unpleasant. Use different utensils to prepare raw foods, such as chopping boards and knives, and don’t re-use things like chopping boards and knives without washing them in hot, soapy water.
Allergies, intolerances and specialized diets are more common than ever. Most of us have at least a few friends or family who must be very careful about what they eat; and if you don’t see them too often remembering who suffers from what and keeping it all straight is hard. Reminders such as sticky-notes or colour-coded stickers can help. In fact, you can easily find rolls of pre-printed labels online that, though the quantity might last you a lifetime, are cost-effective and provide clarity and time-savings.
‘Don’t serve this to Joe’ stuck on a container would have prevented my dairy-allergic son from consuming cow’s milk on his cereal. Prepared by a very well-meaning grandmother cow’s milk was automatically added to all the bowls. If in doubt about any food, don’t serve it and read the labels for all warnings and guidance.
Cook it well
Retailers and manufacturers test safe cooking methods and will have calculated times and temperatures for both cooking and reheating foods, so follow these instructions carefully. Using a food thermometer can help you check internal temperatures, especially a large turkey.
Don’t be tempted to rapidly thaw out any poultry, meat or fish by running it under (or immersing it in) hot water, even if you have a last-minute need for it. This runs the risk of contaminating your kitchen with droplets of bacteria-laden water and you won’t have defrosted your meat safely. Better to eat late or order pizza, rather than serve a meal that your family won’t soon forget.
If you are reheating food, make sure it is piping hot before serving it. Check for cold spots if you’re using a microwave – a thermometer comes in handy here too.
If it indicates on the label that the food should be stored in the fridge then store it in the fridge. For those in the northern hemisphere your garage, outbuilding, or shed might ‘feel cold’ but it isn’t temperature-controlled. Safety may also be compromised by non-human Christmas visitors such as mice, rats, raccoons or foxes!
The good news is that most alcoholic and soft beverages can be stored in this type of location in many parts of the world to make some space for food in the refrigerator. But as my colleague who has spent several Christmases in the Arctic reminded me, if the outdoor temperature is too low this can be physically dangerous as freezing carbonated beverages expand and then explode – which also suggests not forgetting them in your car overnight either.
On the flip side of this, people living in warm climates must also be careful when groceries make the trip from the store to home. In Sydney, Australia, the average December temperature is 25°C, but as I write this the temperature for tomorrow is forecast to be 30! Leaving groceries that need refrigeration in the car in this kind of heat is simply a bad idea. Run all of your other errands on your way to the grocery store.
Be aware of safe storage times for fresh foods in the refrigerator and check regularly that the fridge is running at or below 40° F (4°C); especially when very full. The freezer temperature should be 0°F (-18°C). The best way to do this is to buy a thermometer if your appliance doesn’t feature one that’s built in.
There will always be one relative who believes ‘use by/consume by’ dates are a conspiracy. My Grandma was convinced that they were a marketing tactic deployed by sneaky food companies who wanted us to throw away perfectly good food and buy more of their products. She lived to the age of 92 by the mantra ‘if it smells alright then it will be alright’, but unfortunately did suffer a few bouts of food poisoning along the way. Food poisoning bacteria are not in the habit of flagging their presence with lurid colours and bad smells, if they did nobody would get sick.
Food companies have done their research on ready-to-eat foods – so trust them and obey. For your home-cooked creations, follow some simple guidelines:
Anything with cooked rice should be cooled quickly and stored in the refrigerator, even though it appears innocuous, the rice must be eaten within a day after thoroughly reheating it
Foods such as home-cooked casseroles or curries can be stored for up to two days
Cooked meat can be stored for up to four days in a refrigerator (assuming you have moved the drinks and have space) and for two to six months in a freezer
And a final note on food waste…
Plan your menus and shop accordingly.
Food is valuable. Wasting it isn’t good for your bank balance or the planet. According to WRAP's research and estimates compiled by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), approximately one-third of all food produced in the world is lost or wasted. And that means all the water, land, energy and labour production needed is wasted too. Plus, once it’s added to landfills, it produces greenhouse gas emissions that harm the atmosphere.
Planning out what is going to be eaten, when and by how many people is time well-spent, it can really help you focus on a shopping list and cut back on what you think you need. Which means you have more money to spend on gifts or donate to a food bank.
On behalf of the food sector team and everyone at BSI, we wish you a very happy and healthy holiday season!
Author: Alison Cousins
As BSI’s Global Food Training Director, Alison supports the delivery of food sector training to enable food professionals to develop and grow their skills. As the chief cook of many successful holiday meals, this year’s challenge includes incorporating seasonal delights for her two youngest, newly-vegetarian children.