Tips for Keeping Food Safe This Holiday Season

The busy holiday season comes with special food safety concerns for businesses. Here are some tips to keep in mind.
December 2, 2021

The holiday season can be the most exciting and profitable time of year for many businesses, especially food businesses who can capitalise on the range of social events. Personal and work parties, family and friends get-togethers — these events are often centred around special food and drink. While your business may be getting ready for the busiest time of year, it’s crucial that you keep safety top of mind as well, to prevent a food-borne illness outbreak.

Here are some food safety tips to keep in mind during the holiday season.

Control ingredient quantities

Depending on the type of establishment and services you offer, you may be ordering and preparing large amounts of food for large numbers of people. That means you’ll need to pay close attention to ingredient quantities and only order what you need. This is one of the best ways to prevent food spoilage and to avoid serving unsafe food to customers.

Make sure the kitchen is set up for safety

Things may get hectic during the holiday rush, and staff could be working different shifts than usual or taking vacations, so make sure your kitchen is set up for safety — and success. This involves simple steps such as:

  • Separating foods to reduce risk of cross-contamination. Keep raw foods separate from cooked. Ensure juices from meat, poultry and seafood do not drip onto other foods.
  • Ensuring your kitchen uses the FIFO — first in, first out — system, so that foods acquired or prepared earlier are served and consumed first.
  • Having fully equipped hand washing stations available, with paper towels, liquid soap dispensers and hand dryers.

Be ready for the holiday rush before it hits!

Remember proper hand washing protocols

In busy times, it’s easy to neglect the basics. Remember, though, that hand washing for at least 20 seconds with warm water and liquid soap is crucial for everyone working in a food business. Staff must wash hands:

  • before, during and after preparing food
  • after touching trash
  • after using the toilet
  • after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing
  • after smoking

Post reminders in prominent locations about when and how to wash hands, and ensure these rules are followed no matter how busy the operation gets!

Take care with shellfish

Shellfish can be particularly risky, so be sure to buy, store and prepare seafood properly. Ensure you only purchase from reputable suppliers and that it’s refrigerated correctly. When cooking shellfish, an internal temperature of 75°C needs to be reached before it’s considered safe to eat. If you intend to serve raw fish, use sushi-grade fish, as this will have been frozen according to specific standards aimed at killing bacteria.

Cook food thoroughly

Make sure high-risk foods are handled carefully and for cooked items, ensure they’re cooked thoroughly to kill any dangerous microorganisms that could be present when they’re raw or undercooked. Meat, poultry, seafood and eggs need to be cooked well. As a general rule, all food must be cooked to 75°C or higher, with meat maintaining the temperature for a minimum of 2-3 minutes. To be sure, use a clean, calibrated thermometer to check the internal temperature of these foods and ensure they have reached their safe cooking temperature.

Be mindful of temperature

Frozen food must be frozen at -15°C or below and must be thawed completely before cooking (except those that are designed to be cooked from frozen).

Hot foods must be kept hot after thorough cooking and maintain a temperature of 60°C or above.

Cold food should be maintained at 0°C to 5°C, and should be kept chilled or refrigerated until serving time. If you’re putting together serving platters intended to be left out for a period of time, try using iced trays and cold packs to keep the food at safe eating temperatures.

If you have a large number of appetisers on a tray that need to be stored in the refrigerator, place them in smaller, sealed containers, freeze what you can, and label each container with the date and time it was stored.

Be aware that special foods mean added risk

Holiday dishes and desserts often contain common allergens such as nuts, eggs or shellfish.

Some holiday foods such as eggnog, tiramisu or hollandaise sauce could contain raw eggs — make sure these eggs are pasteurised, and that customers are aware of precisely what is contained in which dishes. Ensure staff know which ingredients are in which dishes, so that they can confidently inform a customer who may ask. Add notes on the menu letting customers know the potential allergens or risks associated with certain dishes.

If you’ll be serving freshly roasted turkey as part of a holiday menu, you need to prepare in advance to make sure it’s done safely. Thaw the turkey in the refrigerator instead of on the counter, as harmful bacteria can multiply rapidly in the meat when left out. Keep in mind that this can take a while to thaw — roughly 24 hours for every 5 lbs of turkey! Plan ahead to remove the temptation to thaw the turkey at room temperature.

High-risk groups of people — the very young, sick, elderly or pregnant — should always be taken into special consideration. For example, some popular holiday foods like soft cheeses and raw oysters can be potentially harmful to pregnant women. Be mindful of these special risks.

Don’t assume food is safe based on appearance

Anything that looks or smells off should definitely be thrown away. Even if a food doesn’t look, taste or smell spoiled, it can still be unsafe. Food-borne illnesses are caused by pathogenic bacteria, which can be present in raw or undercooked meat, poultry, seafood, dairy, eggs, fruits and vegetables. Store these foods properly to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria. And when in doubt, throw it out!

Keep leftovers safe

If you’re sending customers home with leftovers after a holiday soiree, make sure they know how to keep them safe. Always seal food properly in clean, airtight containers. Inform customers about proper reheating practices: thoroughly reheat leftovers to make sure bacteria growth isn’t encouraged after reheating, and if reheating in a microwave, take steps to make sure the food is reheated evenly. Cold spots can easily breed harmful bacteria and make them sick.

Make sure customers know that food must be thrown away after it has spent 2 hours in the Temperature Danger Zone (between 5°C and 60°C). Basically, leftover food should be stored properly right away to be safe and help prevent a bout of food poisoning.

At the Australian Institute of Food Safety (AIFS), our mission is to prevent food-borne illness — during the holidays and all year round! Be prepared for the holiday rush by ensuring all staff are trained in food safety. AIFS's nationally recognised Food Safety Courses will provide Food Handlers with the knowledge they need to make sure food is safe during the holidays and beyond.