People dressed for a holiday party don’t picture themselves sick in bed shortly after the festivities, but that’s what could happen if food on party buffets isn’t handled and served safely. Bacteria are party crashers, and the only housewarming gift they bring is foodborne illness.
How do bacteria crash parties? They hitch a ride on perishable foods left out at room temperature without being kept cold (40 °F and below) or hot (140 °F and above). This is called the “Danger Zone” temperatures between 40 °F and 140 °F where bacteria grow and multiply exponentially, doubling in number every 20 minutes.
To be a safe host, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends following the four basics of safe food preparation: “Clean, Separate, Cook and Chill.” These basics should also be followed by guests bringing foods to a party.
Here are some tips from the USDA’s Meat and Poultry Hotline to help hosts and guests eat safely at holiday parties.
Clean: Wash your hands before and after handling food; wash cutting surfaces, and utensils. This seems logical, yet not washing hands is a top cause of foodborne illnesses. Always serve food on clean plates—not those previously holding raw meat and poultry. Bacteria that may have been present in raw meat juices can cross contaminate the food to be served. REPLACE empty platters instead of adding fresh food to an existing dish. Many people’s hands may have been taking food from the dish, which has also been sitting out at room temperature.
Separate raw and cooked foods to prevent the transfer of bacteria from raw food onto ready-to-eat food. This is called “cross contamination.” For example, if you are preparing raw vegetables and meat balls, don’t let the raw meat come in contact with, raw veggies for a dip platter, or food that does not require further cooking (such as sliced, cooked meat and cheese).
Cook: Use a food thermometer to make sure food reaches a safe internal temperature before removing meat from the heat source:
- Cook all raw beef, pork, lamb and veal steaks, chops, and roasts to a minimum internal temperature of 145 °F. For safety and quality, allow meat to rest for at least three minutes before carving or consuming.
- Cook all raw ground beef, pork, lamb, and veal to an internal temperature of 160 °F.
- Cook all poultry to a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 °F.
If you’re transporting hot, cooked food from one location to another, keep it hot by carrying it in an insulated container. When serving hot food on a buffet, make sure its temperature stays at 140 °F or above. Chafing dishes, warming trays and slow cookers are all fine to keep hot foods hot. But don’t re-heat cold food in them. Make sure to reheat foods to at least 165 °F.
Chill: If you’re transporting cold foods, use a cooler with ice or a commercial freezing gel. Keep cold foods cold on a buffet by nesting the serving dishes into bowls of ice.
The Two-Hour Rule
Foods should not sit at room temperature for more than two hours. Keep track of how long foods have been sitting on the buffet table and discard anything that has been sitting longer than two hours.
A word about raw eggs: if you’re serving eggnog made with raw eggs, make it safely from a cooked egg-milk mixture, heating gently until it reaches 160 °F on a food thermometer. Or serve pasteurized eggnog. And no matter how tempting, don’t eat unbaked cookie dough containing raw eggs.
Ask Karen, the virtual food safety representative, is available 24/7 at AskKaren.gov. Weekdays between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. ET, the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline is available at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) or via live chat at AskKaren.gov. On Thanksgiving Day, the Hotline is open from 8:00 am to 2:00 pm Eastern Time.