Food safety tips for the holiday season

How you handle food matters—whether it’s meat, poultry, fruits, vegetables, baked goods, or leftovers.

The harmful bugs that cause food poisoning can show up in any of those foods. Here’s how to lower your risk.

Cookie dough and other seasonal treats

Cookie dough. Raw eggs aren’t the only food safety risk from raw cookie dough. Flour can be contaminated when the grain is still in the field or at other steps during production. And raw flour isn’t treated to kill germs (until you cook it).

For example, in one 2016 outbreak, 56 people—aged 1 to 95—were diagnosed with Shiga toxin-producing E. coli infections, which can cause bloody diarrhea and may lead to kidney failure. A quarter of them had to be hospitalized. The culprit: contaminated flour that the people tasted as unbaked homemade dough or batter. Three children got sick after restaurant staff gave them raw dough to play with while waiting for their meals.

To avoid E. coli in raw flour (or Salmonella in raw eggs), don’t taste unbaked dough or batter and wash your hands after handling raw flour or eggs.

Cider. Avoid unpasteurized cider, especially for older adults, children, or those with weakened immune systems. Or mull the cider: heat it on the stovetop (to boiling) and add spices.

Eggnog. Homemade eggnog could be contaminated with bacteria in raw eggs. It’s safer to use pasteurized eggs or buy ready-made eggnog, which is pasteurized. (Look for low-fat, soy, or almond milk nogs.) Make your own safely by gradually heating the egg-milk mixture to 160˚F or until it coats a metal spoon.

Meat and poultry

Make sure to use a food thermometer. Cook steaks, roasts, and chops to 145˚F, then let them rest for at least three minutes. Poultry—turkey, chicken, or duck—needs to reach 165˚F.

Fish is done (145˚F) when its flesh is opaque and separates easily with a fork.

Vegetables and fruits

Keep these tips for buying and washing produce in mind:

  • Buy fresh-cut produce like bagged salad greens or half a melon only if it is refrigerated or surrounded by ice.
  • Separate raw meat, poultry, and seafood from fruits, vegetables, and other foods in your shopping cart and in your refrigerator.
  • Wash your hands for 20 seconds with warm water and soap before and after preparing any food.
  • Wash fruits and vegetables under running water just before eating, cutting, or cooking, even if you plan to peel them. Don’t use soap (it leaves a residue). Produce washes are okay, but not necessary.
  • Scrub firm produce like cucumbers with a clean produce brush. Let them air dry before cutting.
  • Don’t rinse bagged, pre-washed salad greens. You’re more likely to contaminate them with bugs from your sink than to make them safer to eat.
  • Discard the outer leaves of heads of leafy vegetables like cabbage and lettuce.


Leaving cooked food at room temperature is an invitation for bacteria that can cause food poisoning—like Clostridium perfringens and Staphylococcus aureus—to multiply. (And reheating the leftovers won’t destroy their toxins or spores.)

So refrigerate or freeze leftovers promptly. Meat and all perishable foods should be left out for no more than 2 hours.

Sources: N. Engl. J. Med. 377: 2036, 2017, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Photos: © azurita/ (cookie dough), © MSPhotographic/ (eggnog), USDA (temperatures).

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8 Replies to “Food safety tips for the holiday season”

  1. So, can one not eat left over cold fried chicken or cold meat
    loaf or anything cold right out of the frige?

    1. Refrigerator-cold leftovers of prepared foods that have been properly and promptly stored should not pose significant food safety risks. But when reheating, it’s safest to reheat to 165 degrees F or higher to keep food out of the “danger zone.” These links from USDA have more information:

  2. Couldn’t you tell us how to heat the flour so it kills the bacteria? I saw something from us da and it would be more helpful than saying “no”. I realize the eggs part but we have heard of that for years (can use pasteurized eggs or egg substitute ). The flour is kind of new problem.

    1. Regarding contaminated flour. There are ways to pasteurize flour to decontaminate it, but these processes are not available to consumers and even how the milling industry is accomplishing this is not known. I heard a presentation at a national food safety meeting that there are subtle, but marked, changes in the properties of the flour that has been pasteurized. You may have noticed slight changes in the texture and ‘crumb’ of the bread products manufactured by some national food chains that specialize in bread and that are now using treated flour. It is my understanding that manufacturers of cookie dough products, i.e. slice and bake, are also using treated flour in their products.

  3. Make a roux: Cajun & Creole cooking browns flour (to the color of pecans) before using it to thicken gumbos & sauces. This takes about 20 minutes of moving the dry flour constantly in a cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. My guess is that would do in just about any bug.

  4. Don’t forget to regularly wash your reusable cloth or other grocery bags – they can also harbour germs and bacteria.

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