The holidays are a great time to get together with family and friends. For many of us, these seasonal gatherings often include food. Did you know that proper food preparation and storage is just as important as the ingredients that go into your dishes? Practicing food safety measures helps to prevent foodborne illness — a sure way to ruin your holiday fun.
To find out how you can prevent foodborne illness during the holidays, we asked Meredith Carothers from the United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) division — one of the American Kidney Fund's (AKF) Kidney Kitchen® collaborators – to share her insights.
AKF: Why is it important to follow food safety measures?
Meredith: Foodborne illness, which you can get from eating contaminated food, is a preventable public health challenge that causes about 48 million illnesses and 3,000 deaths in the U.S. each year. You may feel symptoms of foodborne illness — nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and fever — within minutes to weeks after eating contaminated food. Because the symptoms are often flu-like, many people may not recognize that the illness was caused by harmful bacteria or other pathogens in food. Although symptoms can be mild in some cases, other cases can result in hospitalization, acute kidney injury and even death.
AKF: Why should people with kidney disease care about food safety?
Meredith: Certain groups of people — including people with kidney disease — are at higher risk for foodborne illness than others. Kidney disease, organ transplants and diabetes (the leading cause of kidney disease) can all lower your immune system's ability to fight off infection, so not only are you more susceptible to contracting a foodborne illness, you could also become much sicker if you do get infected. This is especially true if you are taking immunosuppressant, or antirejection, medicines after a kidney transplant. And as you get older, you are also more likely to get sick from contaminated food.
AKF: What are some of the most common food safety measures people should take when preparing holiday meals?
Meredith: You cannot see, smell or taste harmful bacteria that can cause foodborne illness. Any time of the year, it is important to follow the four steps to food safety:
- Clean. Wash your hands and surfaces often.
- Separate. Do not cross-contaminate food items.
- Cook. Cook food to proper temperatures, checking with a food thermometer.
- Chill. Refrigerate leftovers promptly.
It is also important to keep food out of the "danger zone" between 40 °F and 140 °F, when bacteria multiply more rapidly. To keep food out of the danger zone, keep cold food cold and hot food hot. Do not let foods stay within the danger zone for more than two hours, or for more than one hour if it is over 90 °F outside.
AKF: Are there additional food safety concerns for people with kidney disease?
Meredith: In addition to the four steps to food safety, people with kidney disease should avoid higher risk foods such as raw or undercooked meat, poultry or fish, unpasteurized (raw) milk, foods that contain raw/undercooked eggs, unwashed fresh produce and hot dogs, deli and luncheon meats that have not been reheated.
AKF: What food safety tips would you give someone attending a holiday potluck or party with food that sits out the whole time?
Meredith: The concern with a potluck is food entering the danger zone. If you have kidney disease and are attending a potluck, do not eat any food that has been sitting out without a hot or cold source for more than two hours.
If you are hosting the potluck, you can keep food hot in chafing dishes, slow cookers or warming trays. You can keep food cold (40° F or below) by nesting dishes in bowls of ice or using small serving trays that you can fill back up with food straight from the refrigerator. Discard any cold leftovers that have been left out for more than two hours at room temperature, or for one hour when the temperature is above 90 °F.
AKF: Are there food safety concerns for beverages?
Meredith: If you have kidney disease, you should avoid higher risk beverages like homemade eggnog, which can have unpasteurized eggs.
AKF: What are some lesser-known food safety tips that people should follow?
Meredith: Washing raw poultry, beef, pork, lamb or veal before cooking is not recommended. Bacteria in raw meat and poultry juices can be spread to other foods, utensils and surfaces, which is what we call cross-contamination. Recent USDA research has found that washing or rinsing meat or poultry increases the risk for cross-contamination in the kitchen, which can cause foodborne illness.
When cooking meat and poultry, remember that color is not a reliable indicator of doneness. The only way to tell if meat and eggs are fully cooked is to measure the internal temperature with a food thermometer. Bonus: this can also prevent overcooking and guesswork.
To prevent additional bacterial growth, it is important to put your food in the refrigerator soon after you are done cooking (without leaving it on the counter to cool), so it reaches the safe refrigerator-storage temperature of 40° F or below. Learn more here.
AKF: What should you do if you think you have contracted a foodborne illness?
Meredith: Follow these general guidelines:
- If you or a loved one with kidney disease has a suspected foodborne illness, get medical care immediately.
- Preserve the evidence. If you still have a portion of the possibly contaminated food, wrap it securely, label it, "DANGER" and freeze it. Save all the packaging if you can, or write down the food type, date and other identifying marks on the package. Also write down the date and time you consumed the food and when your symptoms started. Save any identical, unopened products but do not consume them.
- Call your local health department if the suspect food was served at a large gathering, from a restaurant or other food service facility, or if it is a commercial product.
- Call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) if the suspect food is a USDA-inspected product and you have all the packaging.
We hope these tips help you have a happy, safe and kidney-friendly holiday season!