03:20pm Saturday 22 February 2020

Catering for Christmas crowds?


  • Cool large batches of food quickly in small portions
  • Special care should be taken with rice, eggs, poultry
  • Eggs are most common cause of salmonella
  • Bacteria in cooked rice produces toxins


Follow a few simple food safety tips to ensure your offerings don’t dint the Christmas spirit, says QUT public health senior lecturer Belinda Davies.

“Preparing a lot of food for Christmas gatherings in the height of summer has its hazards if you don’t take care with cooling and storing the food properly,” she said.

“When food is cooked in large batches in advance, if things go wrong, they can go spectacularly wrong.

“People tend to prepare too much food, too far in advance and most home refrigerators just don’t have the capacity to store such large amounts of food safely.

“Large batches of food that are going to be eaten later should be broken up into shallow containers and then put into the fridge to cool down quickly.

“The trick then is to ensure that there is enough space for cold air to circulate around the containers to cool quickly and keep their contents cold.”

Ms Davies said one of the chief mistakes people made was to put a large container or pot in the fridge to cool, or to put several smaller containers stacked together to cool.

“If large containers are used or there are no gaps between containers then the food in the centre will remain warm for hours. This warm temperature gives harmful bacteria such as salmonella and campylobacter a chance to grow,” she said.

“At temperatures between 5⁰ and 60⁰C food enters the danger zone, which is when harmful bacteria can flourish, so food should not be left on the kitchen bench to cool or on the dinner table for hours.”

Ms Davies said another common error was to wash poultry.

“Many people wash chicken and other poultry, but doing that increases the risk of spreading salmonella and other bacteria as contaminated water splashes onto benches and into sinks that are later used to wash ready-to-eat foods like salad vegetables.

“After washing poultry meat, people’s hands are also contaminated and if they touch door handles, tea-towels or other surfaces they can accidentally spread salmonella around their kitchen.

“We should just cook poultry straightaway. Any bacteria on the surface of the meat will be killed during cooking. We should then wash utensils and cutting boards that have had raw poultry on them in the dishwasher or wash them in very hot water.”

Ms Davies said raw or minimally cooked eggs were now the most common cause of food-borne salmonella outbreaks in Australia.

“Several outbreaks have been associated with home-made foods such as mayonnaise, aioli, tiramisu, mousse and drinks made with raw eggs. So people should be particularly careful if they are preparing foods with raw eggs in them, especially seasonal favourites like eggnog.”

Another food that is commonly used at Christmas that can be more hazardous than people realise is rice.

“The bacteria commonly associated with rice form spores, hard covers that protect them from heat during the cooking process,” Ms Davies said.

“When the rice cools the bacteria start to grow again. As they grow, they produce a toxin which can cause severe food poisoning. Unfortunately the toxin is not destroyed by heat, so reheating rice won’t prevent food poisoning. But ensuring rice is used within a few hours of cooking or it is cooled quickly to below 5⁰C will prevent food poisoning.”

Some other tips to ensure the holiday season remains festive are:

  • Wash fruit and vegetables thoroughly
  • Keep kitchen surfaces and equipment clean, particularly after using them for raw foods
  • If you run out of fridge space, put drinks in an esky with ice so food is kept below 5⁰C
  • Use a meat thermometer to make sure turkey, chicken and stuffed roasts are cooked so that the thickest part of the meat is 75⁰C
  • Put leftovers in the fridge straight away
  • Use leftovers within 2 days (except for hams which can last longer if stored according to the instructions on packaging)
  • Use safe alternatives (e.g. store bought eggnog which is pasteurised) if you are preparing food for people who are more vulnerable to food-borne illness including pregnant women, people with compromised immune systems, children under 5 and people over 70
  • Wash your hands regularly when preparing food, especially after touching raw meat, poultry or egg shells, the bin or other surfaces that may be contaminated; and
  • Don’t prepare food for others if you’re sick, especially if you’ve been vomiting or had diarrhoea.

Media contact: Niki Widdowson, 07 3138 2999 or n.widdowson@qut.edu.au

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