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Keeping food safe

By Kim O’Hare

With the holiday season quickly approaching it’s time to stock up on the food and drink that help make it a special time of year.

But it is all too easy, amid the flurry of activity, to be a little careless in the handling and storage of holiday fare. UAEasy.com answers a few questions you may have in hopes of making your holiday a little healthier and happier…

UAEasy.com pictureHow long is it safe to keep a turkey, or other meat or poultry product, in the freezer?

Because freezing keeps food safe almost indefinitely, recommended storage times are for quality only. Our freezer storage chart at the end of this article lists optimum freezing times for best quality.

For foods not listed on the chart, you may determine its quality after defrosting. First check the odour. Some foods will develop a rancid or “off” odour when frozen too long and should be discarded. Some may not look picture perfect or be of high enough quality to serve alone but may be edible; use them to make soups or stews. Cook raw food and if you like the taste and texture, use it.

What about refrigerator freezers?

If a refrigerator freezing compartment can’t maintain zero degrees or if the door is opened frequently, use it for short-term food storage. Eat those foods as soon as possible for best quality. Use a free-standing freezer set at 0° F or below for long-term storage of frozen foods.

Keep a thermometer in your freezing compartment or freezer to check the temperature. This is important if you experience power-out or mechanical problems.

Is it safe to refreeze food that has thawed completely?

Once food is thawed in the refrigerator, it is safe to refreeze it without cooking, although there may be a loss of quality due to the moisture lost through defrosting. After cooking raw foods that were previously frozen, it is safe to freeze the cooked foods. And if previously cooked foods are thawed in the refrigerator, you may refreeze the unused portion.

If you purchase previously frozen meat, poultry or fish at a retail store, you can refreeze if it has been handled properly, and that’s where the risk lies. Who knows how the food has been handled at the store?

What is the safest way to thaw a frozen turkey?

Health experts recommend three ways to defrost turkeys: in the refrigerator, in cold water and in the microwave. Never defrost turkey on the counter or in other locations.

It’s best to plan ahead for slow, safe thawing in the refrigerator. Allow about 1 day for every 5 pounds of turkey to thaw in the refrigerator.

Turkey may be defrosted in cold water in its airtight packaging or in a leak-proof bag. Submerge the bird or cut-up parts in cold water, changing the water every 30 minutes.

Turkey defrosted in the microwave should be cooked immediately after thawing because some areas of the food may become warm and begin to cook during microwaving.

Do I need to freeze food rapidly?

Freeze food as quickly as possible to maintain its quality. Quick freezing prevents large ice crystals from forming throughout the product. Slow freezing creates large, disruptive ice crystals. During thawing, they damage the cells and dissolve emulsions. This causes meat to “drip” - lose juiciness. Emulsions such as mayonnaise or cream will separate and appear curdled.

Ideally, a food two inches thick should freeze completely in about two hours. If your home freezer has a “quick-freeze” shelf, use it. Never stack packages to be frozen. Instead, spread them out in one layer on various shelves, stacking them only after frozen solid.

Freezer burn does not make food unsafe, merely dry in spots. It appears as grayish-brown leathery spots and is caused by air reaching the surface of the food. Cut freezer-burned portions away either before or after cooking the food. Heavily freezer-burned foods may have to be discarded for quality reasons.

What if freezing changes the colour of food?

Colour changes can occur in frozen foods. The bright red colour of meat as purchased usually turns dark or pale brown, depending on its variety. This may be due to lack of oxygen, freezer burn or abnormally long storage.

Freezing doesn’t usually cause colour changes in poultry. However, the bones and the meat near them can become dark. The dulling of colour in frozen vegetables and cooked foods is usually the result of excessive drying due to improper packaging or over-lengthy storage.

Are nutrients retained when freezing food?

The freezing process itself does not destroy nutrients. In meat and poultry products, there is little change in nutrient value during freezer storage.

Does freezing destroy bacteria & parasites?

Freezing to 0°F inactivates any microbes - bacteria, yeasts and moulds - present in food. Once thawed, however, these microbes can again become active, multiplying under the right conditions to levels that can lead to food-borne illness.

Since they will then grow at about the same rate as micro-organisms on fresh food, you must handle thawed items as you would any perishable food.

Trichina and other parasites can be destroyed by sub-zero freezing temperatures. However, very strict conditions must be met. It’s not recommended to rely on home freezing to destroy trichina. Thorough cooking will destroy all parasites.

Is frozen food safe?

Food stored constantly at 0°F will always be safe. Only the quality suffers with lengthy freezer storage. Freezing keeps food safe by slowing the movement of molecules, causing microbes to enter a dormant stage. Freezing preserves food for extended periods because it prevents the growth of microorganisms that cause both food spoilage and food borne illness.

What foods can you freeze?

You can freeze almost any food. Some exceptions are canned food or eggs in shells. However, once the food (such as a ham) is out of the can, you may freeze it.

Being able to freeze food and being pleased with the quality after defrosting are two different things. Some foods simply don’t freeze well. Examples are mayonnaise, cream sauce and lettuce. Raw meat and poultry maintain their quality longer than their cooked counterparts because moisture is lost during cooking.

Is it safe to eat leftover food that was left out on the counter to cool at dinner time, then forgotten until morning? Will additional cooking kill the bacteria that may have grown?

No. Bacteria exist everywhere in nature. They are in the soil, air, water, and the foods we eat. When they have nutrients (food), moisture, and favourable temperatures, they grow rapidly, increasing in numbers to the point where some types of bacteria can cause illness.

Bacteria grow most rapidly in the range of temperatures between 40 and 140°F, some doubling in number in as little as 20 minutes. Some types will produce toxins that are not destroyed by cooking.

Pathogenic bacteria do not generally affect the taste, smell, or appearance of a food. In other words, one cannot tell that a food has been mishandled or is dangerous to eat. For example, food that has been left too long on the counter may be dangerous to eat, but could smell and look fine.

If a food has been left in the “Danger Zone” – between 40 and 140°F – for more than 2 hours, discard it, even though it may look and smell good. Never taste a food to see if it is spoiled.

Should a large pot of soup sit on the range until it cools, or should it be refrigerated hot?

Hot food can be placed directly in the refrigerator or it can be rapidly chilled in an ice or cold water bath before refrigerating. Cover foods to retain moisture and prevent them from picking up odours from other foods.

A large pot of food like soup or stew should be divided into small portions and put in shallow containers before being refrigerated. A large cut of meat or whole poultry should be divided into smaller pieces and wrapped separately or placed in shallow containers before refrigerating.

How can I safely transport perishable foods to a picnic site, or family gathering?

If taking food away from home - on a picnic, for example - try to plan just the right amount of perishable foods to take. That way, you won’t have to worry about the storage or safety of leftovers.

Items which don’t require refrigeration include fruits, vegetables, hard cheese, canned meat or fish, chips, bread, crackers, peanut butter, jelly, mustard, and pickles. You don’t need to pack them in a cooler.

After estimating the amount of food which needs to be kept cold, pack an insulated cooler with sufficient ice or gel packs to keep the food at 40°F. Pack food right from the refrigerator or freezer into it.

Why? Bacteria grow and multiply rapidly in the danger zone between 40°F and 140 °F (out of the refrigerator or before food begins to cook). So, food transported without an ice source or left out in the sun at a picnic won’t stay safe long.

If packing a bag lunch or lunch box, it’s fine to prepare the food the night before and store the packed lunch in the refrigerator.

Are canned goods still safe after a year? Two years? Longer?

Store canned foods and other shelf stable products in a cool, dry place. Never put them above the stove, under the sink, in a damp garage or basement, or any place exposed to high or low temperature extremes. Store high acid foods such as tomatoes and other fruit up to 18 months; low acid foods such as meat and vegetables, two to five years.

Canned meat and poultry will keep at best quality two to five years if the can remains in good condition and has been stored in a cool, clean, dry place.

While extremely rare, a toxin produced by Clostridium botulinum is the worst danger in canned goods. NEVER USE food from containers that show possible “botulism” warnings: leaking, bulging, or badly dented cans; cracked jars or jars with loose or bulging lids; canned food with a foul odour; or any container that spurts liquid when opening. DON’T TASTE SUCH FOOD! Even a minuscule amount of botulinum toxin can be deadly.

Can linings might discolour or corrode when metal reacts with high-acid foods such as tomatoes or pineapple. As long as the can is in good shape, the contents should be safe to eat, although the taste, texture and nutritional value of the food can diminish over time.

What colour is safely cooked poultry?

Safely cooked poultry can vary in colour from white to pink to tan. For safety when cooking poultry, use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature.

Poultry should reach a safe minimum internal temperature of 165°F throughout the product. For a whole chicken or turkey, check the internal temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast. All the meat - including any that remains pink - is safe to eat as soon as all parts reach at least 165°F.

Freezer storage chart (0°F): Note: Freezer storage is for quality only. Frozen foods remain safe indefinitely.

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