An important part of Christmas celebrations is food, glorious food. Some families enjoy a traditional Christmas meal of turkey and roast vegetables followed by plum pudding with brandy sauce. For others, the main meal will be salads and platters of cold meats, gourmet cheeses and the like with a cold or frozen dessert to follow. Some people prefer a barbecue. Many like to eat out of doors, either at home, the beach or a park. Whatever type of food you are preparing and wherever you are eating, it is important to follow some safety rules to avoid the risk of food poisoning.
Use by dates Plan carefully so you use meat and other perishable items promptly. Perishable foods must be eaten by the use by date or else disposed of. Meat, fish or other perishable products may look and smell fine past the use by date, but there could be a dangerous level of bacteria present. It is not worth risking food poisoning.
Storage of perishable foods Some foods are considered ‘high risk’ in regard to food poisoning. These include shellfish, eggs, dairy products, cooked meat (and products such as gravy which contain meat) and cooked rice.
Perishable foods need to be stored in the fridge at 4 degrees Celsius or lower. Fridge thermometers are available to check your fridge is set cold enough.
Make sure air can still circulate once your fridge is full of Christmas goodies. Check that the drinks fridge on the back verandah you have decided to utilise for a few food items is running at a low enough temperature to keep those foods below 5 degrees Celsius.
Sometimes an item such as seafood has been 'thawed for your convenience’. Look for any writing on the packaging advising you of this or ask at the deli food counter if you are unsure. Do not refreeze if the item has been defrosted. Some foods can be cooked and then they could be safely popped in the freezer.
Transport perishable goods in an insulated bag or esky with a frozen ice brick in the coolest part of your car. Put items in the freezer or refrigerator as soon as possible.
Transport frozen and perishable goods home from the shops in an esky. Image:Marie Vonow
Hand hygiene Hands should be washed thoroughly with soapy water for 20 seconds and dried for 20 seconds before preparing food. Finger nails should be clean and any cuts on the hands should be covered with a waterproof dressing. Wash hands after handling raw meat or fish or any vegetables with visible dirt.
Utensil hygiene It is recommended separate cutting boards are used for:
• raw meat
• cooked meat
• bread and dairy
• raw fish.
This avoids cross contamination. Using boards of different colours makes it easy to remember which board is to be used for each type of food.
Defrosting meat for cooking Larger frozen cuts of meat will need to be defrosted before cooking, unless the instructions state otherwise. Read any instructions and follow carefully to ensure the meat is cooked properly and the centre reaches at least 70 degrees Celsius (a meat thermometer allows you to check the internal temperature).
Plan ahead so there is enough time for a large item like a turkey to thaw before it needs to be cooked. The safest way to defrost meat is in the fridge, not on a kitchen bench. Alternatively smaller cuts can defrosted in the microwave and cooked immediately.
Safe barbecue practices Raw and cooked meats should not be placed on the same plate. To avoid contamination, ensure you do not put cooked meat back on the tray used for raw meat. Make sure any poultry is cooked right through to avoid possible food poisoning.
Eating outdoors It can be lovely to eat alfresco, especially if the weather is pleasant. Use a fine net to keep germ ridden flies off the food.
A food net will protect food from flies. Image:Marie Vonow
There can be a temptation to leave food out all afternoon so people can ‘graze’. How long can food stay out of the refrigerator before it is unsafe to eat? Current research says perishable food can stay in what is known as the ‘danger zone’ (between 5 and 60 degrees Celsius, the temperature range at which bacteria can multiply to unsafe levels) for up to two hours if leftovers are then to be put back into the fridge.
It is considered safe to eat food that has been in the danger zone for up to four hours. However, after any longer than two hours it is not safe to refrigerate for later use. On hot days many foods will dry out, melt or become unpalatable quickly, so it is best for them to be refrigerated as soon as possible.
Storage of leftovers If too much meat is thawed don’t put uncooked meat back in freezer. However, if you cook it thoroughly it can then be frozen for later use.
Use up those leftovers quickly. There are plenty of recipes on the internet with ideas for using up your excess turkey and ham.
Cleaning cloths and tea towels Separate cloths should be used for washing dishes and wiping down kitchen surfaces. Wash sponges frequently in very hot water and detergent, squeeze out the water and allow to dry in the sun to prevent the growth of bacteria.
A hand towel should be used to dry hands, not the tea towel. Likewise, tea towels should not be used to wipe a kitchen counter and then used for drying up as germs can be transferred onto the clean dishes. Tea towels need to be washed frequently. Allowing washed dishes to air dry rather than wiping them with a tea towel is generally recommended these days.
Following food safety rules helps prevent the festive season being spoilt by food poisoning.