FOOD SAFETY STANDARDS and REMINDERS for the Holidays
(Long but IMPORTANT read!)
With the Holiday Season upon us, I wanted to take a few minutes to provide some reminders and concerns regarding safe food handling. The Holidays are all about enjoying family, friends, and of course these gatherings tend to revolve around food. Hopefully these reminders and outlines will help keep everyone’s Holidays free of food borne illness. Though this post focuses on turkey safety, please realize the holding times and guidelines for reheating applies to all food items.
For those of you who may not know me, or what I do for a living, I am the Executive Chef for an International Culinary Consulting and Educational Corporation. I work with large resorts and cruise ships, down to Mom & Pop sized restaurants to educate staff and enforce these standards to ensure the safety of patrons. I also have in excess of 16 years working in restaurants and resorts directly related to food service and food handling. These guidelines are provided by the FDA, USDA, and CDC, and are mandated practice in any and all reputable dining establishments.
There are two major bacterium we must concern ourselves with at Thanksgiving time….Salmonella, and Campylobacter Jejuni. These are the two leading causes of Food borne Illness in the United States. The leading culprit carrying these bacterium is poultry…with an astounding 40-100% of domestic raised poultry carrying C. Jejuni at slaughter (provided by the CDC). The leading cause for contracting C Jejuni among humans is undercooked poultry.
The minimum safe temperature required to eliminate these bacterium in your bird is 165*. I also admit, carryover cooking does occur…so if you are skilled with temperatures and carryover cooking, by all means, cook your bird as you see fit. For others, 165* is the critical temperature that must be reached in the cooking process. If you stuff your bird, the internal temp of 165*F must be achieved throughout the stuffing as well! (As a note, thighs and legs are always better in the 185*+ range….which is part of the challenge to cooking a whole bird without drying out your breast meat. However, even meat that appears undercooked or still pink IS safe to eat as long as the temperature reached at least 165* per the USDA). Also please note, the USDA does not recommend cooking turkey at any temperature less than 325*F to hasten death of bacteria in poultry.
I believe we have all heard of “The Danger Zone” of foods. The Danger zone is a range of temperatures in which conditions are conducive to allow for rapid multiplication of bacteria, which can cause a food borne illness. This Danger Zone is from 41*-140* F.
Food should NOT be held in this zone for any longer than 4 HOURS. Once 4 hours has passed, food must be refrigerated and chilled as rapidly as possible to halt the growth of harmful bacteria. To provide you with a hypothetical example: You have removed the turkey from your Egg, and parts range from 165* to 185*F. You wrap the turkey, and place it in a warmed cooler for transport. The internal temperature of the turkey must be monitored. Once 140*F in the coolest part is reached, the 4 hour danger zone clock has begun ticking. At the end of 4 hours, this product must be immediately refrigerated, or reheated quickly to 165*F minimum.
To achieve rapid chilling, warm foods should be placed into a refrigerated environment UNcovered to allow for a faster exchange of cold air and warm air. Once the food is chilled, it can be sealed or covered properly so it does not dry out, or pick up off flavors from any odors that may exist in the fridge. Remember….the goal is to get the food out of the danger zone as quickly as possible, and rapid chilling is a key to making this happen!
Understand the Danger Zone applies when reheating foods as well. Foods being reheated should be reheated as quickly as possible. Bring ALL reheated foods to a minimum of 165* F throughout, for a minimum of two (2) minutes before serving. Temperatures should be taken from the center of the item. (Cold leftovers out of the fridge are safe to eat as is provided your refrigerator is working properly maintaining temps of 40*F or less.)
I have heard the argument that food is “sterilized” during the cooking process. Certain bacteria are killed at certain temperatures, but in no way can the meat be considered ‘sterile’. There are still anaerobic bacteria that survive the cooking process, such as Staph, E.Coli, or Salmonella, but are kept within safe levels, provided the food is not within the “danger zone”. Once within the danger zone however, these bacteria are in a prime environment for multiplying, which can cause a food related illness. For example, one surviving C. Jejuni or Salmonella bacterium can multiply to several million in 8 hours, and thousands of millions within 12 hours. Bacteria are always present in meat, even after cooking. But the bacteria levels are held at bay, provided temperatures exceed 140*. So as a final example, you carve the turkey, and when placed on the table it is still good and hot…..say 130*. After 6 hours on the table, that meat has spent hours in the danger zone, allowing those bacteria to multiply. That tempting plate of turkey sitting there for 6 hours, now contains literally millions of bacteria….certainly enough to cause a food related illness. Please be aware how dramatic the result can be if food is not handled properly.
I hope the above reminders and guidelines help to keep you and your families safe during the upcoming holidays. And remember….”When in doubt, throw it out”.
(Note: Post edited 7/10 to change danger zone time from 2 to 4 hours.)