Food safety during the Christmas season


By Sylvanus Thompson

Food is an important part of Christmas holiday celebrations. However, persons who have hosted a Christmas dinner know it can be a stressful time making sure that all of the food they have spent weeks planning is cooked to perfection so that their guests can enjoy the big day. Additionally, over Christmas, many people find themselves cooking for more persons than they are used to and therefore handling larger amounts of food.

Data show that food poisoning cases spike around the festive period. So it is as important to make sure that you focus on practicing good food hygiene so that your Christmas dinner is not spoiled by illness. Foodborne illness (“food poisoning”) is caused by eating food contaminated with certain bacteria, viruses or parasites. The most common symptoms of food poisoning are stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and fever. Most people recover completely from foodborne illness, but some groups are at greater risk of serious health effects, like kidney problems and even death. The groups at greater risk are young children, the elderly, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems.

Examples of disease-causing organisms include salmonella, e.coli and listeria. These bacteria are sometimes found in or on the following:

  • raw and undercooked meat, poultry, fish and their juices
  • the surfaces of and/or in the juices of raw fruits and vegetables
  • unpasteurized milk and raw milk products
  • raw and lightly cooked eggs
  • uncooked flour and uncooked products made with flour, like dough

Since these foods are often part of the menu at many Christmas holiday meals and parties, it is a good idea to take extra care when preparing, cooking, serving and storing food during the holiday season. You can therefore help reduce the risk of foodborne illness for your family and friends during the holiday season by following some basic food safety tips.

Safe Shopping

Avoid cross-contamination when doing your Christmas food shopping. If not, you can be well on your way to a food poisoning bug even before preparing any food.  Always make sure to take enough bags so that you can pack raw and ready-to-eat food separately. It is estimated that around seven per cent  of all raw chicken packaging is contaminated with the potentially deadly campylobacter bacteria and vegetables like potatoes and leeks have been known to cause e.coli infections as organisms can transfer from the soil to food.

Safe Storage of Foods

Plan your fridge and freezer space effectively as some foods need to be kept in the fridge to help slow down the growth of germs and keep food fresh and safe for longer. To prevent cross-contamination, store raw turkey and other raw foods such as meat, poultry, fish, shellfish and vegetables separately from cooked and ready-to-eat food.  Store food either wrapped in cling film or in covered containers and keep raw meat, poultry and fish below dairy products, cooked and ready to eat food to stop any dripping which might spread bacteria.  Ideally, your refrigerator should be kept at 4 degrees Celsius (4° C) or lower. So make sure that you do not overload and prevent the cool air from circulating.   The temperature can be easily checked with an inexpensive fridge thermometer.

 Thawing and Defrosting

If your turkey is frozen, make sure you check the instructions on the packaging well in advance to ensure you have enough time to fully defrost it. Do not thaw foods at room temperature. Ideally, food should be defrosted fully in the fridge or if this is not possible, use a microwave on the ‘defrost setting’ directly before cooking. Defrost a turkey according to its size – a typical large turkey weighing 6-7kg could take as much as four days to fully thaw in the fridge. At the end of thawing, the body cavity should reveal no ice crystals, and the legs should not be stiff but move freely. If there are still ice crystals and/or the legs are a little stiff, more defrosting time will be required. To avoid cross-contamination always defrost your turkey in a container large enough to catch any juices.

Safe preparation

Before you start to prepare your Christmas dinner, always remember to wash your hands, particularly before handling food and between handling raw meat, poultry and raw vegetables. Clean equipment and surfaces thoroughly after preparing raw foods and before contact with other foods. Where possible, use different chopping boards for raw meat, poultry, vegetables and cooked food to reduce the risk of cross contamination.


Make sure your turkey is fully defrosted before cooking as partially defrosted turkey may not cook evenly, and harmful bacteria could survive the cooking process.  However, some turkeys can be cooked from a frozen state if the supplier’s instructions say so. After your food has been defrosted, it should be cooked thoroughly within 24 hours and only reheat once after it has been cooked, thus reducing the risk of food poisoning.

Cooking food at the right temperature and for the correct length of time will ensure that any harmful bacteria are killed. This is particularly important when cooking turkey, chicken, duck, goose, pork, or any minced products such as kebabs, sausages and burgers. It is recommended that a probe thermometer be used to ensure that whole poultry be cooked to an internal temperature of no less than 84 degrees centigrade (84° C).  There should be no pink meat visible when you cut into the thickest part and the meat juices should run clear. Consider cooking stuffing in a separate roasting tin as this will allow the bird to cook more easily.


Do not leave leftovers sitting around as food poisoning bacteria can grow and multiply. Cool any leftovers quickly, then cover them and ensure that they go in the fridge or freezer within 1-2 hours. If you have a lot of one type of food, splitting it into smaller portions will help it to cool quickly and allow you to freeze and defrost only what you need at a given time. If you are unlikely to finish your leftovers within a day or two, then you can store them in the freezer. When you are ready to use frozen leftovers, make sure you defrost them thoroughly in the fridge overnight or in a microwave (on the ‘defrost setting’) and then reheat until steaming hot. Avoid re-heating food more than once.

Strict adherence to safe food handling practices will help you to spread peace, love and joy and not foodborne illness this holiday season.

(Jamaica-born Sylvanus Thompson is the Associate Director/Food Safety Lead with Toronto Public Health.)