Holiday food safety tips

It’s the season for parties and festive gatherings. To avoid spreading viruses or food-borne illnesses along with your passed appetizers and buffets, make food safety a priority by following these steps.

  • Clean - Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water for 20 seconds before and after handling any food. Make sure your little chefs do the same!
  • Use paper towels to dry hands and surfaces. Kitchen sponges or cloths can spread bacteria around your kitchen.
  • Wash all food-contact surfaces (cutting boards, dishes, utensils, countertops) with hot, soapy water or sanitize them in your dishwasher before and after preparing each food.
  • Rinse fruits and vegetables thoroughly under cool running water – even if being cooked – and use a produce brush to remove surface dirt.
  • Thaw - Never defrost a turkey by leaving it out a room temperature. The safest way to thaw a turkey is in the refrigerator. Allow 24 hours for every 5 pounds. A turkey can also be safely defrosted under cold, running water or in a microwave.
  • Separate - Don't cross contaminate – use a separate cutting board for all raw meat and poultry preparation.
  • Bacteria on raw poultry can contaminate your hands, utensils and work surfaces, so wash them well, using hot, soapy water, after they touch raw poultry or meat.
  • Avoid placing a thawing turkey or any raw meat (even commercially wrapped), where it could drip on any ready-to-serve foods such as fresh fruit or vegetables that won’t be cooked before serving.
  • Stuff Safely - The safest way to cook stuffing is in a shallow pan of its own, not inside the bird. In a pan, the stuffing can quickly reach 165°F. In a turkey, it can take a lot longer, so bacteria can survive. If you do stuff the bird, do it right before you put it in the oven and check the temperature with a probe to be sure it cooks to at least 165°F.
  • Cook - Turkeys should be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165°F. How long it will take depends on the weight of the turkey and oven temperature and fluctuation. To check, insert a 0 to 220° degree probe thermometer deep into the turkey’s thigh.
  • Chill - Refrigerate leftover turkey, stuffing and sides within two hours of when you remove them from the oven.
  • Cook soups and stocks in the refrigerator, uncovered in shallow pans. After they reach refrigerator temperature, transfer them to large covered containers.
  • Don’t pack your refrigerator too tightly for cool air to circulate. Fill containers with food no deeper than four inches and avoid stacking multiple containers on top of each other.  Once food is cooled to under 45°F, it’s safe to stack.
  • Reheat hot foods to 165°F and gravy, sauces and soups to a rolling boil.


Watch out for these foodborne illnesses:

Campylobacteriosis, an infectious bacteria, is the most common bacterial cause of gastroenteritis worldwide. Symptoms generally start between 2-4 days after exposure and include diarrhea, cramping, stomach pain, vomiting and fever. Campylobacter is often spread through undercooked poultry, but can also be found in other contaminated food and water.

E. coli 0157, a virulent bacteria, primarily affects children, causes severe gastrointestinal symptoms, and can result in kidney failure.  It is spread primarily through undercooked hamburgers, but cases have resulted from unpasteurized apple cider and other foods.

Cyclospora, a parasitic disease prevalent in developing countries, causes severe diarrhea and significant weight loss. It was first identified in an outbreak in Westchester County in 1995. Since that time, several outbreaks of disease were traced to raspberries from Guatemala.  Disease control experts from the Westchester County Department of Health worked with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention epidemiologists to help track the disease source and bring the outbreaks under control.

Often, the source of these bacterial and parasitic disease are fruits and vegetables imported from developing countries with inadequate sanitation. They cause diseases not commonly seen in this country. Other sources are closer to home and are caused by unsanitary conditions in the meat and poultry industry and overuse of antibiotics in animal feed. Each case of foodborne illness requires intensive follow-up by public health staff in disease control and environmental health services.

Learn more about specific foodborne illnesses from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) Web site:

Other resources and fact sheets:

Hand washing is your number one defense against illness.