The University Record, December 5, 1995

From store to leftovers, holiday foods need safe handling

By Joanne Nesbit
News and Information Services

No matter how safe a food product is when purchased, it must be handled properly in the home to ensure a healthy and happy holiday.

"Shop wisely," says Nancy Wells, an environmental health specialist in Occupational Safety and Environmental Health at the U-M. "Don't buy anything you won't use before the expiration date."

Wells suggests making sure refrigerated food in the store is cold to the touch, that frozen food is solid and that canned goods are free of dents, cracks or bulging tops. Once at home, packages of raw or thawing meat, poultry or fish should be placed in a shallow container on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator so their juices will not contaminate other foods. All foods requiring refrigeration should be kept at 45 degrees Fahrenheit or colder, so the temperature inside the refrigerator should be approximately 40 degrees F or below.

Proper preparation of the food is essential to prevent foodborne illness, Wells says, and taking time to thoroughly wash hands before and frequently during food handling can prevent cross-contamination.

"Food contact surfaces such as counters and cutting boards can be kept clean and sanitary by washing with soap and water, rinsing and sanitizing with a mild bleach solution of approximately one teaspoon per gallon of water," Wells says. "Bacteria can also live in towels, sponges and cloths, so those should be washed and changed often."

Meat, poultry, fish or eggs that are raw or partially cooked can contain harmful bacteria that can be killed only by cooking. Wells says ground beef should be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 155 degrees F; poultry to 165 degrees F; and pork, ham, sausage, and bacon at 155 degrees F. Fish should be cooked to an internal temperature of 140 degrees F. A metal stem-type thermometer will register internal temperatures when inserted into the food.

"Don't use recipes, such as for some eggnogs, that call for raw or partially cooked eggs in the final presentation of the food," Wells says. Pasteurized products such as Egg Beaters may be used as a replacement.

The rule of thumb for serving safe food is to keep hot food hot and cold food cold, Wells says. That way, bacteria will not have a chance to grow. Wells suggests not leaving foods out on the table or counters for longer than two hours. Most food left standing at room temperature for long periods of time will develop dangerous levels of bacteria, she says.

When storing leftovers or foods that have been prepared ahead of time, Wells suggests dividing large portions into small, shallow containers for quick cooling in the refrigerator. Don't crowd items in the refrigerator, she says, because cool air must circulate to keep foods at the proper temperature. Poultry and dressing should be kept in separate containers.

How long should you keep leftovers? "When in doubt, throw it out!" Wells says.

If there is no doubt that the stored leftovers are good, remember that sauces, soups and gravies should be brought to a boil before serving a second or third time. Heat other leftovers to 165 F, using that stem thermometer to check. Remember: heat kills bacteria.

With proper purchasing, preparation, handling, cooking, serving and storing, you can ensure your family and guests a healthy and happy holiday season.