DPHHS Offers Holiday Food Safety Tips

Food is an important part of many holiday celebrations. The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) offers these reminders to help ensure the holiday season is free of illness from food.

Holiday food safety has six basic components:

1. Wash hands

2. Ill people should not handle food

3. Cook food thoroughly

4. Keep hot food hot and cold food cold 

5. Clean countertops and food utensils

6. Separate raw animal foods from other foods

“Following these basic tips will go a long way in making sure your family and friends are served safe food during holiday season,” said DPHHS Director Richard Opper. “However, if you cannot recall these items, the important thing to remember is: When in doubt, throw it out!”

The following list provides information on common topics related to day-to-day and holiday food safety:

Washing hands

Washing hands is essential in preventing many types of illnesses, since hands often become contaminated with harmful bacteria and viruses. Just because hands do not appear dirty does not mean they might not be contaminated.

This means hands should be washed before handling food, and especially when switching between handling raw animal foods and foods that are ready-to-eat, such as salads, vegetables, fruits and breads. 


People that have, or recently had, illness symptoms should not handle food. This is especially true if the person has, or recently had: vomiting, diarrhea, infected cuts, fever, jaundice or fever with sore throat.

Safe cooking

To be safe, thoroughly cook foods. Thorough cooking means heating the internal temperature of the food to least 165oF (Fahrenheit). To measure the internal temperature, use a metal-stem thermometer and insert it into the thickest portion of the meat or poultry. Metal-stem thermometers are available at most grocery stores.

Public health authorities recommend that turkey stuffing not be cooked inside the turkey. Cooking stuffing inside the bird increases cooking time, increases the risk that the stuffing and turkey will not be thoroughly cooked and dries out the meat on the exterior of the bird. Be safe; cook the stuffing separately from the bird.

Proper thawing

Thaw frozen turkeys, poultry, fish and meats in the refrigerator to prevent growth of harmful bacteria. Alternatives to thawing in the refrigerator are to thaw food under cold, running water or as part of the cooking process.

Public health authorities do not recommend thawing food at room temperature.

Thawing at room temperature presents the opportunity for harmful bacteria to multiply in numbers that may cause illness, if any part of the food increases to a temperature of 41oF or greater for a significant period of time. However, thawing at room temperature may be safely done, if the exterior of the food stays at or below 41oF.

Handling leftovers

Place leftover foods in the refrigerator within one hour of serving, if you plan on keeping the food. If there are leftovers, cool them from hot to cold within 6 hours or less. Hot means 135oF or greater; cold means 41oF or less.

The hot-holding food temperature should not be confused with the cooking temperature. Some harmful bacteria, such Salmonella often found in poultry, are not killed at the hot-holding food temperature. This is why thorough cooking is important to avoid a possible illness from food.

Vacuum packaging leftover cooked meats and cooked poultry is not encouraged, due to the increased risk of botulism poisoning. 

Consume or discard refrigerated leftovers within one week. Frozen foods should be consumed or discarded within six months.

Proper food holding temperatures

Hot foods should be kept hot at 135oF or greater, until served. Cold foods should be at or below 41oF.

Homemade pumpkin pies should remain refrigerated until served.

Careful cleaning

Countertops, knives and other food utensils should be cleaned after contacting raw animal foods.

Cleaning these surfaces reduces the chances of cross-contamination between raw poultry, raw meats or raw fish and foods that are ready to eat, such as salads, vegetables, fruits and similar foods. Use a bleach/water mixture for cleaning at a concentration of one cap of unscented bleach per gallon of water.

A better alternative to prevent cross-contamination is to process raw animal foods on a cutting board used exclusively for one purpose. For example, a cutting board used to slice raw vegetables should be used only for that purpose. If this is not possible, thoroughly clean the surface between uses.

Food storage

In refrigerators, keep raw, animal foods below or away from other foods that are ready-to-eat. Separating raw food from ready-to-eat foods will reduce the chance of cross-contamination, which can transfer harmful microorganisms from one food to another. 

 Transporting food

When transporting foods that normally require refrigeration, keep in cooler or insulated bag to ensure the food stays at or below 41oF.


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