Christmas: a jolly good time to avoid food poisoning

Monday, 17 December 2001

‘Tis the season to be jolly — unfortunately it’s also the food poisoning season when the weather is hot, the fridge is crammed beyond its capacity and we’re cooking for larger numbers of people than usual. Too often the result is people getting sick.

To help us all enjoy the holidays without the unwanted after-effects, Chairman of the Food Safety Information Council, Barry Shay, today released a set of food safety tips for Christmas and the holiday period.

‘Christmas is a time of year we all look forward to, especially as it gives us the chance to entertain family and friends,’ Mr Shay said. ‘But a recent study in the UK showed that a very high percentage of domestic food poisoning cases happen when we’re entertaining.

‘That’s likely to be even more true in Australia where our peak entertaining time of year is in the summer and the weather is much hotter. Because we’re catering for a larger number of people and we often eat outdoors, we change our food handling practices — that increases the risk of food poisoning.

‘The secret is to avoid the temperature danger zone between 5 degrees Celsius and 60 degrees Celsius, where food poisoning bacteria can grow rapidly on the food.

‘Often our fridges aren’t large enough to fit everything in or are so crammed with food and drinks that the cold air can’t circulate properly. The fridge door is opened often as our guests get their cold drinks or nibbles. These things lead to the fridge warming up to over 5 degrees and the food is no longer adequately protected.

‘Remember that cold drinks, including beer, can be kept cool with ice bricks in an esky. Keep the fridge space for the food. It can give you food poisoning, the beer can’t.

‘If you buy a frozen turkey, you can thaw it on the benchtop safely if you leave it in its plastic bag and put it in a baking dish to collect the juices, but it should be refrigerated as soon as it is thawed and then cooked thoroughly until the juices run clear.

‘Your Christmas ham will keep several weeks with proper handling by removing it from its plastic wrap, covering with clean cloth so it doesn’t dry out, and following any instructions on the wrapping.

‘You should store raw meat below the salads or other ready-to eat food in the fridge. If you don’t, the blood and juices from the meat could drip on to the salads. Those juices may contain food poisoning bacteria which will then contaminate the salads. If the meat is thoroughly cooked before eating, that will kill the bacteria on the meat, but the bacteria will be eaten along with the salads.

‘And salads do need to be kept in the fridge. Dishes such as rice or pasta salad can be just as dangerous as meat dishes. Dried rice and pasta contain bacteria which produce spores which can survive the cooking process. These bacteria grow if the salads are then stored at room temperature. These dishes should always be kept in the fridge.

‘Taking these simple precautions can go a long way towards ensuring that your family and friends enjoy safe and healthy food at your home this Christmas’, Mr Shay said.

About the Food Safety Information Council

The Food Safety Information Council is a partnership of government agencies, industry and professional groups with the objective of educating consumers about safe food handling practices.

Christmas Food Safety Tips from the Food Safety Information Council

  • Avoid temperature danger zone between 5ºC and 60ºC where food poisoning bacteria grow.
  • Keep hot foods steaming hot over 60°C.
  • Keep cold foods refrigerated under 5ºC.
  • Food should always be defrosted in the fridge or microwave, never on the bench top.
  • If you are going to defrost a large turkey remember it will take several days to defrost in the fridge. Always make sure that it is thoroughly defrosted, even in the centre.
  • If you cannot defrost the turkey in your fridge you could ask your butcher to defrost it in his coolroom. Defrosting a turkey on the benchtop is ok but you must make sure it is thoroughly cooked all the way through to make sure any bacteria are destroyed – so use a meat thermometer to check.
  • Before preparing your food for Christmas make sure that there is enough room in the fridge to keep cold food under 5°C.
  • If there is not enough room in the fridge remember that soft drinks and alcohol can be kept cool with ice in another container.
  • Prepare foods as close as possible to eating time.
  • Wash hands thoroughly with soap and warm water and dry thoroughly.
  • Use separate cutting boards and utensils for raw meats.
  • Cook foods properly.
  • If you cook large amounts divide into smaller portions, cover and place in fridge or freezer.
  • Refrigerate leftovers immediately after the meal (as soon as it stops steaming).
  • Never leave leftovers to cool on the kitchen bench and use the refrigerated leftovers within 2 to 3 days.
  • When reheating food ensure that it is steaming hot all the way through (over 60° C).
  • Your Christmas ham will keep several weeks with proper handling by removing it from its plastic wrap, covering with clean cloth so it doesn’t dry out, and following any instructions on the wrapping.