Holiday Food Safety Q&A with Fern Hastings

Fern, before I dive into questions about holiday food safety tips, can you tell a bit about yourself, and what you do and how you’ve come to know so much about this topic?

  • I have a Bachelors Degree in Environmental and Occupational Health from California State University Northridge
  • I have been a Registered Environmental Health Specialist for 18 years.
  • I have been working for Shasta County Environmental Health Division for more than 17 years and I am currently the Food Program Manager.

What are the biggest dangers of holiday cooking and serving? What’s the worst that can happen?

Holiday cooking is different from everyday cooking because we cook in much larger quantities, we transport food, we may run out of room in the refrigerator, and the food sits out longer because our meal lasts longer. We also have no idea how food brought by other people was handled before it came to our house.

It is best to time your food to be ready at mealtime, rather than ahead of time. The longer food sits out, the more chance for pathogens to multiply to dangerous levels. Cooking food may destroy some pathogens, but it does not destroy them all. I once investigated a case where several groups of diners became ill eating at a restaurant. It turned out that the warmer in the restaurant was not working properly. The diners who ate rice later in the evening were the ones who got sick, while the early diners did not get sick. Bacillus cereus was in all the rice, but it only produced its toxin when it was held at the wrong temperature.

You can make food ahead and cool it to 41 degrees or less quickly, then reheat to 165 degrees. You must keep in mind though, that the food is out of temperature as it is cooling, and larger quantities make cooling quickly more difficult. Basic food safety gives you 4 hours total (including preparation and cooling) that food can be left out, so that leaves a lot less time for serving, and leftovers would not be a good idea.

What’s the safest way to thaw a turkey? What if you’re in a hurry?

The safest way to thaw a turkey is in the refrigerator.

So it’s the holidays, and the refrigerator is crammed with food and we must make room for more food. What foods are OK to leave out in the garage where it’s a bit colder than the house? What about pies? Can those stay at room temperature?

Cookies, cakes, berry pie, and pecan pie do not have to be refrigerated. Homemade pumpkin pie should be refrigerated. When holding a store bought pumpkin pie, check the directions on the box. Sometimes they will adjust their recipe to make the pie non-potentially hazardous.

You can free up space in the refrigerator by placing your canned and bottled beverages in a clean ice chest, and then cover them with ice. Be sure to use a separate container and tongs for ice to use in the drinks.

Speaking of temperatures, what are the safest internal temperatures for cooked turkey, ham and prime rib? Do we take into account the fact that it will continue cooking a bit even after it’s removed from the oven?

    For safety, the meats must reach these internal temperatures, whether it reaches this temperature before or after the meat is removed from the oven does not matter:

  • Turkey should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees
  • Ham is usually pre-cooked. You can eat it cold. If it is not fully cooked when you purchase it, the minimum internal cooking temperature is 145 degrees.
  • Prime rib does not have a minimum internal cooking temperature, because any contamination will be on the outside of the meat. Even rare prime rib will have the outside thoroughly cooked. Ground beef, on the other hand, has the outside contamination spread throughout the meat when it is ground. That is why ground meat should be cooked to an internal temperature of 155 for 15 seconds.

All these meats should be held at or above 135 degrees once they are cooked, or the leftovers should be placed in the refrigerator quickly to prevent the growth of pathogens.

Can we talk leftovers? How soon after a meal should leftovers – I guess I’m thinking turkey and mashed potatoes and gravy – be chilled? Is it OK to put hot food in the refrigerator?

The leftovers should be put away as soon as possible. Remember, you have a 4 hour window total. That includes the time you prepare the food, the time it sits out for serving, and the time it takes to cool below 41 degrees. Many people are under the impression that they need to wait for food to be room temperature before placing it in the refrigerator. You definitely don’t want to wait that long. Once the food falls below 135 degrees, it is in the temperature danger zone, and should be placed in the refrigerator.

I used to make eggnog with raw eggs, until my dietitian friend said it was dangerous, that I should make a cooked custard first, which I’ve been doing for years. That’s really a pain the neck. Is it really necessary? If I add more brandy will it make it safer to drink?

You can use pasteurized shell eggs or pasteurized liquid eggs. When using unpasteurized eggs, the way to make it safe would be to heat it to 145 degrees if serving immediately or to 155 degrees if the eggnog will not be served immediately.

Speaking of eggs, sometimes I end up with a surplus of egg whites, which I put in a jar in the refrigerator. How long can they last?

I cannot give you a time frame for the refrigerator because there are many factors to think about, such as whether the eggs were left out of temperature previously and how cold your refrigerator is kept. You can freeze egg whites and they will keep for a long time. Just be sure to thaw them in the refrigerator.

Any cautionary food tales that will make a believer out of those laid-back cooks who don’t refrigerate food?

Over the years, I have investigated foodborne illnesses linked to contaminated water, sick employees working with food, broken hot holding equipment, and a baby with diarrhea that was brought to a catered event. We get many calls from the public complaining about foodborne illness. We investigate all the complaints. The public should keep in mind that some foodborne illnesses have a long incubation. Campylobacter has an incubation of 2-5 days. Salmonella has an incubation of 6 hours to 3 days. When people call in to our office, we try to find out where and what they have eaten for at least the last 3 days. That way, we can figure out the culprit, even if everybody ate at the facility several days ago.

Anything else you want us to know?

    Food safety involves more than just keeping your food at 41 degrees and below or at 135 degrees and above:

  • Hands must be washed thoroughly with soap and warm water after handling raw meats, eggs, and fish.
  • Cutting boards, bowls, utensils, and other surfaces may not be used for ready to eat food, after being used for raw animal products, fish, or eggs.
  • Do not handle food for others when you are sick with diarrhea, vomiting, coughing, or sneezing.
  • Stuffing is safer when cooked outside the turkey.
  • Raw animal products should be cooked to the proper internal temperature.

Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain-Greenberg founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Prior to 2007 Greenberg was an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, CA.

A News Cafe, founded in Shasta County by Redding, CA journalist Doni Greenberg, is the place for people craving local Northern California news, commentary, food, arts and entertainment. Views and opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of anewscafe.com.

Doni Chamberlain

Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded A News Cafe in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain holds a Bachelor's Degree in journalism from CSU, Chico. She's an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She's been featured and quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Washington Post, L.A. Times, Slate, Bloomberg News and on CNN, KQED and KPFA. She lives in Redding, California.

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