By Julia Gunn

The holiday season has arrived and it’s a time to get together with friends and family for food and fun. While enjoying holiday traditions and events, it’s important to keep in mind that favorite food and drinks should always be prepared safely to keep everyone happy and healthy this holiday season – and all year ’round. By following basic food safety procedures, we can go a long way towards protecting our loved ones from food-borne illness like norovirus.

Norovirus, a highly contagious infection, is often called by other names, such as viral gastroenteritis, stomach flu, and food poisoning. The most common symptoms are diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach pain. Norovirus is spread by an oral fecal route.

The Boston Public Health Commission monitors hospital emergency department data and has noticed an increasing trend in emergency department visits for vomiting and diarrhea recently, which may be related to norovirus.

In the spirit of the song “The 12 Days of Christmas,” the BPHC recommends 12 food safety tips to keep your holiday feasts safe.

  1. Wash your hands thoroughly and often — before, during, and after food preparation.  Wash with hot water and soap, up to your wrists, and between your fingers for approximately 20 seconds. You can remind children this means the time it takes to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ twice.
  2. Keep the workspace clean. Wash surfaces like cutting boards, dishes, utensils, and countertops with hot, soapy water after preparing each food item and before going on to the next item.
  3. Have a master plan. Consider your refrigerator, freezer, and oven space, and how you’ll manage to keep hot foods at 140 degrees or higher and cold foods at 40 degrees or below. If you plan to use coolers, make sure you have plenty of clean ice and check it frequently to be sure the ice hasn’t melted. While it may be cold out, it’s still better not to rely on the natural outdoor temperature to keep foods cool!
  4. Keep sticky fingers out of the kitchen.  Prevent family and guests from picking at the food while it is being prepared. It is a good idea to serve simple appetizers to give guests something to nibble on until the meal is ready.
  5. Wash all fresh produce. Rinse fruits and vegetables thoroughly under cool running water and use a produce brush if possible.
  6. Separate. Keep raw eggs, meat, poultry, seafood, and their juices away from other foods. When possible, use one cutting board only for foods that will be cooked (such as raw meat, poultry, and seafood) and another one for those that will not (such as raw fruits and vegetables).
  7. Be EGG-stra careful with eggs. Raw eggs used in eggnog and cookie dough before cooking are a recipe for disaster! When making your own eggnog or other recipe calling for raw eggs, use pasteurized whole eggs, liquid or frozen pasteurized egg products, or powdered egg whites. Don’t eat uncooked cookie dough, which may contain raw eggs.
  8. Cook to proper temperature — and use a thermometer. Meat, poultry, and fish are safely cooked when they reach an internal temperature hot enough to kill harmful bacteria. Color is not a reliable indicator of doneness. Bring sauces, soups, and gravies to a rolling boil when reheating. Cook eggs until the yolk and white are firm.
  9. Refrigerate leftovers within two hours of preparation. Harmful bacteria grow rapidly at room temperature and leaving food out too long is one of the biggest holiday food safety problems. Don’t leave food sitting out for more than two hours in the “danger zone” — above 40 degrees and below 140 degrees.
  10. Do not prepare food while you are sick.  People who aren’t feeling well or have symptoms of norovirus should not prepare food for others while they have symptoms and for 3 days after they recover from their illness.
  11. If stomach flu does visit your house clean and disinfect contaminated surfaces: After an episode of vomiting or diarrhea, immediately clean and disinfect contaminated surfaces by using a bleach-based household cleaner as directed on the product label or a solution made by adding 5–25 tablespoons of household bleach to 1 gallon of water.  The amount of bleach to add depends on the surface – 1 tablespoon of bleach for stainless steel; food/mouth contact items, toys; 1 and 1/3 cup of bleach for tile floors, counter-tops, sinks toilets; and 1and ½ cups of bleach for wood floors.
  12. “When in doubt, throw it out!” Don’t taste food that looks or smells questionable.

The Boston Public Health Commission wishes you a safe and happy holiday season!

Julia Gunn is the Communicable Disease Control Division Director. For more information about BPHC’s Bureau of Infectious Disease, click here; for more on norovirus, click here and here; and for more food safety tips, click here.