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Food Safety

Food Safety for the Holidays

By Angela Treadaway

What is a foodborne illness?

Food contaminated by bacteria, viruses and parasites can make you sick. Many people have had foodborne illness and not even known it. It’s sometimes called food poisoning, and it can feel like the flu. Symptoms may include the following: stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and fever. Symptoms can start soon after eating contaminated food, but they can hit up to a month or more later. For some people, especially young children, the elderly, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems, foodborne illness can be very dangerous. No one wants to spend the holidays in the hospital or for that matter feeling miserable. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that there are as many as 13 million cases of foodborne illness in the U.S. every year. Most cases of foodborne illness can be prevented by using safe food-handling practices and using a food thermometer to check that your food is cooked to a safe internal temperature!

It’s always important to keep foods out of the danger zone, between 41 degrees and 135 degrees, to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria. To do this, just keep hot foods hot, at least 135 degrees, and keep cold foods 40 degrees or lower. Make sure you have a good food thermometer to check foods for safety.

Preparing and serving holiday buffets

Do not let foods linger during preparation. Cook them thoroughly and serve them promptly. Keep hot foods hot with warming trays, chafing dishes or crock pots. Keep cold foods cold by placing serving dishes on crushed ice.

Remember the “2-hour rule” especially when entertaining with a large meal or buffet. Don’t let perishable foods linger for longer than two hours in the danger zone.

Keep replacement dishes of hot food in the oven and extra cold foods cold in the refrigerator or a cooler during the buffet.

Do not add new food to a serving dish that has been sitting at room temperature for more than two hours. Remember also to change serving utensils.

Provide serving spoons and tongs for every dish served. Even finger foods such as cut vegetables, candies, chips/nachos and nuts should have serving implements to prevent cross contamination between guests.

Traveling with food

Wrap hot food in foil and heavy towels, or carry in insulated containers to maintain a temperature of at least 135 degrees.

Store cold foods in a cooler with ice or freezer packs to maintain the temperature at 41 degrees or below. Full coolers keep their temperature better than partially full ones, so add extra insulation to take up unoccupied space. This also prevents containers from sliding, falling over and leaking.

Turkey basics

When preparing a turkey, please allow plenty of time for thawing and cooking. Be aware of the four main safety issues: thawing, preparing, stuffing and cooking to adequate temperature.

Safe Thawing - Turkeys must be kept at a safe temperature. The “danger zone” is between 41 and 135 degrees— the temperature range where foodborne bacteria multiply rapidly. While frozen, a turkey is safe indefinitely, but, as soon as it begins to thaw, bacteria that may have been present before freezing can begin to grow again if it is in the “danger zone.”There are three safe ways to thaw food: in the refrigerator, in cold running water and in a microwave oven.

Safe Preparation - Bacteria present on raw poultry can contaminate your hands, utensils and work surfaces as you prepare the turkey. If these areas are not cleaned thoroughly before working with other foods, bacteria from the raw poultry can then be transferred to other foods. After working with raw poultry, always wash your hands, utensils and work surfaces before they touch other foods.

Safe Stuffing - For optimal safety and uniform doneness, cook the stuffing outside the turkey in a casserole dish.

Safe Cooking - Set the oven temperature no lower than 325 degrees and be sure the turkey is completely thawed. Please stay away from recipes or directions that say cook overnight at a temperature less than 325 degrees. Place turkey breast-side up on a flat wire rack in a shallow roasting pan 2 to 2-1/2 inches deep. To make it more juicy, you can use an oven cooking bag. Check the internal temperature at the center meaty portion of the breast, thigh and wing joint using a food thermometer. Cooking times will vary. The food thermometer must reach a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees. For easier carving, let the turkey stand 20 minutes after removing it from the oven.

Eggnog and other recipes with raw or lightly cooked eggs

Be sure to handle and prepare these tasty treats safely. Commercial, ready-made eggnog is prepared using pasteurized eggs and does not require heating. Homemade eggnog may contain harmful bacteria if not prepared properly. Prepare homemade eggnog using pasteurized egg products, found in most grocery stores.

If you choose to make eggnog with whole eggs, be sure to heat the egg-milk mixture to at least 165 degrees. Refrigerate promptly, once steaming stops, divide large amounts into shallow containers so that it cools quickly.

Precautions should also be taken with sauces, mousses and any other recipes calling for raw or lightly cooked eggs. Use pasteurized egg products, or bring egg-mixtures to a uniform temperature of 165 degrees. All of these foods must be stored in the refrigerator.


Popular holiday beverages such as unpasteurized apple cider and other drinks made from unpasteurized apple cider may pose a safety risk since they may contain harmful bacteria.

Serve pasteurized ciders or bring unpasteurized cider to a rolling boil before serving. This is especially important when serving cider to children, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems.

Leftovers: storage and reheating

While it is tempting to leave turkey and other foods at room temperature for snacking after a meal, you should refrigerate all leftovers promptly in uncovered, shallow containers so they cool quickly. Refrigerate once steaming stops and leave the lid or wrap loosely until the food is cooled to refrigeration temperature. Avoid overstocking the refrigerator to allow cool air to circulate freely.

Store turkey meat separately from stuffing and gravy.

Reheat solid leftovers to at least 165 degrees. Bring gravy to a full, rolling boil and stir during the process.

Use leftover turkey meat, bones, stuffing, gravy and other cooked dishes within four days for best quality or freeze for later use

Giving and receiving gifts of food

It’s lots of fun to get a package through the mail. During this season, many of the packages contain gifts of food – either homemade or from mail-order businesses.

Whether it’s baked goods, fruit, candy, shelf-stable canned items or perishable items such as cheese, meats or sausages, it’s always a great idea to know how to tell if it’s safe to eat and what to do with the food once you open the package.

So if you’re giving or receiving, here are a few food safety tips to keep in mind for these special gifts.

Ordering food gift boxes
or baskets safely

Ask the company how the food will be mailed. If it’s perishable, it should be delivered as quickly as possible. Ideally, this would be overnight.

Also make sure that the outer package of the perishable food will be marked “KEEP REFRIGERATED.”

It’s also a good idea to ask if the food items will come with storage and preparation instructions.

Finally, let your friends know that you’re sending a gift in the mail, so that the food items are handled appropriately. If you’re mailing to a business address, make certain the package will be delivered during business hours.

Receiving gifts of food in the mail

When you receive a food that is labeled “Keep Refrigerated,” open it and check the temperature immediately. It should be at least refrigerator cold to the touch and ideally still partially frozen with visible ice crystals. If the food items are warm, you should notify the company. Do not consume the food. It is the shipping company’s responsibility to deliver the food on time and your responsibility to have someone at home to receive the product.

Remember to refrigerate or freeze the food items immediately after opening.

Mailing perishable food

Food items that are frozen first will stay in a safe temperature range for a longer period of time. After freezing, the food should be packed with a frozen gel pack or purchased dry ice. The frozen food and cold source can then be packed in a sturdy box made of heavy foam or corrugated cardboard.

Fill up any air space in the box with crushed paper or foam “popcorn.” Label your package “PERISHABLE – KEEP REFRIGERATED,” arrange a delivery date with the recipient and ship the package overnight.

For questions concerning holiday food safety please contact Angela Treadaway, Regional Extension Agent from the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, by email or by phone at 205-410-3696. Have a Happy and Safe Holiday Season.

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