How to avoid food poisoning this Christmas

Updated on 23 October 2019 | 0 Comments

Never wash raw meat, and beware the evils of dirty vegetables! Food safety specialist Jill Taylor shares her top tips on how to avoid food poisoning over the festive period.

None of us, no matter how stressful our family relationships are, want to be responsible for making the family ill over the festive season. Follow these few tried and tested steps, as advised by the Food Standards Agency, to make sure your food stays safe over Christmas.

The bird

Once you have bought your bird, make sure you store it safely. Most retailers will provide storage instructions, and ‘use by’ dates will be on the packaging of wrapped products. If there are no instructions and it is a fresh or defrosted raw turkey, then it should be stored, covered, in the fridge and cooked within two days.

The big chill

Frozen turkeys must be defrosted thoroughly before cooking. Any remaining frozen bits means it won’t cook evenly and harmful bacteria might survive the cooking process. Work out the thawing time early – some large ones can take a couple of days to thaw fully. 

Thaw your turkey out in a fridge if at all possible – I know it takes longer, but it is the safest way. If it really isn’t possible then a cold or cool room is the next best thing. In a fridge allow about 10 hours per kg; in a cool room allow about four hours per kg. Remove any giblets or other inside bits as early as possible as this will speed up the thawing process and always wash your hands thoroughly after handling the raw turkey. 

Place the turkey in a large dish to catch any liquid that comes out as the turkey thaws, and be sure to cover it, too. This ensures that it cannot come into contact with anything else in the fridge and risk spreading bacteria to other foods. 

DON’T wash your turkey – it’s not necessary and washing under a running tap can cause splashes of water containing bacteria to spread over work surfaces, sinks, your clothes… Any bacteria present on the raw meat will be killed during the cooking process and would not be removed by water anyway! 

Planning ahead and reheating

Think ahead – a bit of forward planning will ensure your bird stays safe. Work out your cooking time in advance; a large turkey can take several hours to cook through, so make sure you get the bird in the oven early enough. Eating undercooked turkey, or other poultry, brings a high risk of food poisoning! 

You can cook your turkey thoroughly in advance and keep it until you are ready to reheat and eat it. If you do this the cooked turkey needs to be stored in the fridge for up to two days, or freeze it for longer time periods. 

If you are storing in the fridge ensure it is cooled thoroughly, covered, and put in the fridge within two hours of cooking. The bird can be carved into smaller portions to help it cool more quickly if necessary. If freezing, the meat can be kept for several months if wrapped thoroughly, although the quality may deteriorate after time. 

When reheating make sure, for frozen meat, that it is thawed thoroughly in the fridge, and then heated until steaming hot, right through. Only re-heat the meat once and throw away any that is unused.

How long should my turkey cook for?

To work out the cooking time of your turkey, check the packaging or retailers' instructions. If there aren’t any this general guide should make sure you are safe: 

In an oven preheated to 180C (350F, Gas Mark 4): 

Allow 45 minutes per kg plus 20 minutes for a turkey under 4.5kg

Allow 40 minutes per kg for a turkey that’s between 4.5kg & 6.5kg

Allow 35 minutes per kg for a turkey of more than 6.5 kg 

These times are based on cooking an unstuffed turkey; if you cook your bird with stuffing inside, it will take considerably longer to cook – I would always recommend cooking stuffing separate to ensure a safer, tastier bird. 

The simplest way to check if the bird is cooked right through is to pierce the thickest part of the meat and if the juices run clear with no hint of pinkness or blood, then your bird's done. Alternatively you can temperature check the thickest part of the meat – as a rule the core temperature should reach a minimum of 75C.

Roasting other birds

Other birds, such as goose and duck, require different cooking times and temperatures. The oven should always be hotter for duck and goose so that the layer of fat under the skin melts away. 

Cook goose in a preheated oven at 200C (400F/Gas Mark 7) for 35 minutes per kg

Cook duck in a preheated oven at 200C (400F/Gas Mark 7) for 45 minutes per kg

Cook chicken in a preheated oven at 180C (350F/Gas Mark 4) for 45 minutes per kg, plus 20 minutes 

Can I eat leftover meat?

Leftover turkey can be kept in the fridge for about two days, provided it has been put in the fridge as soon as cool. Large amounts of leftover food should be divided into smaller portion sizes before storing in the fridge or freezer. 

Refrigerated leftover turkey can be served cold, hot, or used to make a new dish. If serving cold only take out as much as you need; if serving hot, reheat until steaming hot right through – and only ever reheat once!

To use leftover frozen turkey, defrost thoroughly in the fridge overnight and reheat until steaming hot right through.

Vegetables – scrub up!

Contrary to popular belief it’s not just the turkey, or the protein foods like cream, cheese, meat and eggs, etc. that can cause problems. Care needs to be taken with fruit and vegetables too – there have been several outbreaks of E. coli food poisoning this year that have been caused by unwashed vegetables, or the dirt from vegetables coming into contact with other foods. 

Think about it: to grow good veggies, especially organic ones, we throw manure onto them, which is fine and dandy for great carrots or Brussels sprouts – but some animals carry nasty bacteria in their gut and if this is chucked all over your growing veggies you want to be pretty sure that it’s washed off before you eat them! 

Most of the bacteria will be in the soil or dirt on the outside of the fruit or vegetables, so good washing and thorough peeling will help make sure they are safe. Make sure you dispose of the dirty peelings so they can’t contaminate other foods.

Last-minute top tips

  • Always wash and dry your hands (thoroughly with warm soap and water) before and after handling raw food, including meat and vegetables. 
  • Don’t wash your turkey, or any other poultry. It’s not necessary and you could splash bacteria all over the sink, worktops, and yourself. 
  • Check the ‘use by’ date and stick to it – ‘best before’ is more a guidance for good quality, so you don’t have to be so strict. 
  • Check labels on pre-packed fruit and vegetables. Unless it states ‘ready to eat’ or ‘ready washed’, then you need to wash, peel or cook the food before eating. 

logoAnd finally, Happy Christmas!

Check out Jill Taylor's food safety, health and safety, and nutrition blog here

This is a classic lovefood article

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