Many people suffer food poisoning symptoms over the festive season, with Boxing Day one of the most common days when hospitals are noted to be busier with such cases, writes Marjorie Harvey, founder and director of Australian Food Hygiene Services.
The underlying factor is warm weather and perishable food being left out in room temperature for too long.
We all do it
Many families and friends share food over this period by transporting it to the venue where the party or special meal is being held. The temperature of a car can become very high on warm to hot days. Just 15 minutes in a car without insulated containers and ice bricks could render the food unsafe to eat.
If food is left in room temperatures for more than two hours, it can still be consumed safely. Although after two hours it cannot be returned to the fridge, but can be consumed within the next two hours. After four hours in room temperature, it must be disposed of. This time frame is a guide as room temperature can vary on a hot day.
Food outside at a barbeque would be hotter than in a room, so this time frame could be reduced to possibly just one hour. Use by dates are shorter when they are not stored below 5˚C.
You should also take into account the times it takes to purchase the food and transport it from the supermarket to your home, as well as the food preparation time. When adding it all up, this could exceed four hours very quickly.
This is why so many people become sick from functions such as barbeques and New Year’s Eve parties, or from eating leftover Christmas food.
What you should do
The best practice would be to transport food very safely, ensuring you have enough ice bricks packed around the food to keep it cold (below 5˚C), and to transport it in an insulated container.
You may notice that many hosts tend to over-cater for their guest and put out more food than is required, hence why it is not all eaten. Throwing food out seems wasteful, so it is often returned to the fridge without giving any thought to the length of time it has been out of temperature control, or the associated food safety risks.
Do not put out too much perishable food at once. It would be safer to serve smaller amounts and have plates or bowls ready in the fridge for replenishing. And never top up food in the same bowl in which other foods have been out for too long. Always use fresh bowls or plates when replenishing food items.
I often hear this quote about food safety: “If in doubt, throw it out.” But I have added to that phrase: “If in doubt, throw it out, or put a price on it if you don’t.”
Remember, there is no food as expensive as the price of someone getting sick.