Keep Food Poisoning Off the Menu

Protect your family and your holiday guests by taking these easy precautions

Holiday meal iStock-875198002

Food poisoning can strike at any time of the year. But during the holiday season, when we tend to prepare larger meals over longer stretches of time, it’s easy to become careless about food and kitchen safety.

Slip-ups in food handling, preparation, and cook­ing can lead to a botched favorite dish—or worse, serious illness.

The Centers for Disease Con­trol and Prevention estimates that each year, one in six Americans has a bout of food poisoning, often caused by foodborne bacteria such as salmonella, cam­pylobacter, and E. coli.

To stop those bacteria from crashing your holiday meals, follow these simple kitchen commandments.

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Before You Cook

Check your fridge's temp. To keep food fresh and safe, your refrigerator should be set to 37°F and your freezer to 0°F. CR's refrigerator tests have found that it's not always easy to get your fridge to these levels using your fridge settings alone, so pick up a refrigerator thermometer. These inexpensive gadgets can help you adjust.

Separate poultry and meat from other food. Fewer than one in five shoppers use plastic bags (provided by many supermarket meat departments) to keep meat juices from contaminating other items in their cart, according to a 2014 Kansas State University study.

More on Holiday Cooking

A 2018 study published in the Journal of Food Protection found that 61 percent of poultry packages had meat juice on their outside surfaces, which was often transferred to shoppers' hands, grocery bags, and kitchens—in addition to other food items in their carts. Researchers from Kansas State University recommend using the bags for raw poultry and meat while you're shopping and when storing the products in the fridge.

Avoid the thawing "danger zone." The safest way to thaw frozen meat or poultry is to put it in the refrigerator, not on a counter. Counter-thawed food can enter that dangerous zone between 40° F and 140° F, where bacteria multiply rapidly. If you’re crunched for time, you can defrost meat in a microwave, but cook it immediately afterward because some areas may have already started to cook.

Prep vegetables properly. Bac­teria can also contaminate raw vegetables, and produce may contain pesticide residues. Scrub hard veggies, such as root veg­e­tables, under cold water with a vegetable brush. Never use soap on produce, because it might contain ingredients that are harmful if ingested. And know that washing will not remove most foodborne bacteria from produce—thorough cooking is the most effective way to do this.

Don't rinse your meat. There’s no culinary or cleanliness benefit to doing this, and it could splash bacteria all over your sink, your countertops, and nearby utensils or dishes.

While You're Cooking

Stay safe while baking. Raw eggs can be contaminated with salmonella and uncooked flour has been the culprit in outbreaks of E. coli infections. Don't eat raw batter or dough, or let children play with raw dough. Be sure to clean areas of your kitchen that came into contact with flour or dough—such as a countertop— and any utensils you used, as well as your hands.

Take care with cutting boards. Avoid bacterial cross-contamination by using designated cutting boards for different kinds of food—raw produce, raw meat, poultry, and seafood. Deep scratches or grooves are a haven for bacteria. When such damage makes a board hard to clean, throw it away.

Wash your hands often. Think of your hands as cooking utensils. Wash them well for 20 seconds with hot soapy water every time you handle raw meat, poultry, and seafood. Scrub them again between food prep and cleanup to avoid spreading bacteria to other areas of your kitchen and home.

After the Meal

Store leftovers immediately. Outbreaks of infections caused by the bacteria Clostridium perfringens occur most often in November and December, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The bacteria grows in cooked foods that have been left at room temperature for too long, outbreaks have been often linked to holiday foods. Refrigerate leftovers within 2 hours of cooking to prevent food poisoning.

When in doubt, throw it out. Don't taste food that looks or smells questionable. Ever.

Know when the party's over. Leftovers should be consumed within three to four days. After that, all bets are off.

Bake the Safe Way

The kitchen is one of the busiest hubs in the house, but it also harbors hidden dangers. On the "Consumer 101" TV show, Consumer Reports' experts explain how you can stay safe from E. coli and other contaminants.