Top tips for avoiding food poisoning when preparing Christmas dinner

Posted by ap507 at Dec 21, 2016 09:06 AM |
Dr Primrose Freestone and PhD student Giannis Koukkidis examine serious food infection risks in the popular festive turkey lunch and its leftovers

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This short article looks at the surprisingly serious food infection risks of the popular turkey lunch, and gives advice of how to avoid the consequent festive stomach upsets.

Festive food poisoning

Christmas time is an occasion of family and food celebrations. However, it is also one of the most dangerous times of the year, especially for food poisoning. Infections from food can make you miserable and ruin your holiday, but for some people this can be more serious. In the UK food poisoning results in around 20,000 hospital admissions and up to 500 deaths. Last year the Food Standards Agency (FSA) reported over 500,000 cases of food associated infections, the majority of which were due to Campylobacter acquired from undercooked poultry such as chicken and turkey. This means there is a real food poisoning potential of your Christmas lunch, so care is needed in how you prepare and cook your turkey or chicken. Here are some tips to avoid picking up a festive food poisoning.


Hand washing and good food preparation hygiene is key to avoiding food poisoning. Everyone’s hands are colonised by thousands of resident and transiently hitch hiking bacteria, fungi and viruses – which you transfer when you touch any surface, including food. Washing hands helps in removing the transiently present microbes, which are the ones you pick up and which can cause food poisoning. Washing hands after handling raw food is also important as when you prepared your turkey you will likely have picked up any bacteria that were present on its surface.  This also applies to whatever came into contact with the turkey, so clean work surfaces with an antimicrobial spray and wash all preparation utensils in hot water.

Christmas turkey preparation

Store perishable foods as directed on the manufacturer’s label, and in your fridge always keep separate cooked and uncooked foods. Uncooked foods, especially meat and fish, can carry potentially food poisoning bacteria which are only killed through cooking. If buying a frozen turkey give it plenty of time to defrost (it will take longer in the fridge than in a cool room.

Also, do not wash your Christmas chicken or turkey: the Campylobacter bacteria that might be present and which potentially could give you food poisoning will be splashed over you and your kitchen. If you forget, and the splashback happens, mop up with kitchen towel and spray the areas with antibacterial spray (oh, and don’t forget to change your apron or clothes).

In terms of preparing the turkey, consider stuffing only the neck end, particularly if a very large turkey. A heavily stuffed poultry body cavity (where most of the Campylobacter or other food poisoning bacteria will be) might not completely cook through. In terms of roasting the turkey, cook until the juices run clear of any blood, and if you have a meat thermometer the temperature reaches 70oC in the thickest part of the turkey (the meat between the thigh and breast).

Christmas fruit and veg

Although we tend to think of meat, fish and dairy as being most associated with food poisoning, fresh produce such as vegetables, fruits and even leafy salads also carry a risk. They are grown in soil, and open to contact with birds, animals and insects, all of which can carry food poisoning microbes. Vegetables, fruits and salads are also often eaten uncooked and are minimally processed. Therefore, it is a good idea to wash fresh produce thoroughly before eating. Also, what is on the sprout or potato you peeled will be on your hands, so after vegetable or fruit preparation wash your hands as carefully as you would do after handling raw meat or fish.

Christmas left overs

Potential dangers also lurk in the left overs left on the kitchen table, especially if it has been grazed on post the Christmas lunch (human hands carry bacteria very well, especially after toilet visits, and so wash hands before touching cooked food). If you have lots of turkey or other meat leftovers, you should cover them as soon as possible after your meal, and try to ensure that they are in your fridge of freezer in no more than 2 hours.   The FSA advises that cooked meat leftovers in the fridge should be eaten within 2 days, so freezing is best if you don’t plan on having lots of turkey sandwiches on Boxing Day.  Remember to thaw thoroughly frozen leftovers then reheat until steaming hot to kill off any bacteria or fungi that might have been introduced during the left over portioning.

Have a very happy and food poisoning free festive season!

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