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Which unwanted guests will ruin 120,000 people’s Christmas this year?*


• Possessive mother in law? Nope…
• Drunken uncle? Nope…
• Nagging auntie? Nope…

In fact, the answer is food poisoning bacteria.

Meet Aston University Christmas bug buster Dr Anthony Hilton, expert in food microbiology. He is calling for extra care to be taken this Christmas to prevent food poisoning outbreaks. Although bacteria do pose a threat to health throughout the year statistics show that there are a higher number of food poisoning cases in December, with nearly a quarter related to poultry.*

‘There are three major issues that contribute to food poisoning every Christmas,’ explains Dr Hilton. ‘Firstly, people tend to cook for larger groups and therefore have to cook greater volumes of food. In fact surveys show that 14 per cent of people will cook for over ten people this year.*

There is also a tendency to cook foods that they are not familiar with. A lack of awareness of proper cooking times or preparation of such large quantities of food can lead to food poisoning.

‘Another factor contributing to higher rates of food poisoning at Christmas is that people get worried that the shops will run out of the food that they want so they buy large quantities of food too far in advance. This leads to problems storing the food in the correct way making it easier for harmful bacteria to multiply.

‘Thirdly, after the main Christmas meal people often have a reluctance to throw food away, but don’t store it properly. If the turkey is cooked correctly and stored correctly it will keep for a relatively short period of time but if not it can increase the risk of food poisoning.’
Each year Britain consumes 10 million turkeys,** the main cause of food poisoning in December, helping to explain recent findings by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) that preparing and cooking a traditional turkey is second only to shopping as the most stressful Christmas activity. Common mistakes include washing the turkey before cooking which may cause cross contamination due to splashing and storing and defrosting the turkey incorrectly (five per cent of people admit to defrosting their frozen turkey in the garage or garden shed, a figure which rises to nearly 10 per cent in the Midlands).

‘A common error leading to food poisoning is that the core temperature of the turkey does not get sufficiently high. This is made worse by stuffing the bird which prevents hot air being able to circulate inside. Ideally the bird should reach an internal temperature of 70°C throughout to ensure all food poisoning bacteria are killed,’ explains Dr Hilton. ‘Stuffing should really be cooked separately but if people feel they must stuff the turkey then they need to take the weight of both the bird and the stuffing into account when determining the cooking time.’

Dr Hilton’s top ten tips for a bug free Christmas

1. It is imperative that chilled food is properly stored in the refrigerator. Use a fridge thermometer and check that the temperature is always less than 8°C. Remember, overloading the fridge will prevent the cold air from circulating and stop the refrigerator working properly.

2. Keep raw meats at the bottom of the fridge so that juices do not drip onto other foods.

3. Ideally a turkey should be defrosted in the fridge, but if space does not allow this, defrost in as cool a space as possible. If you have a frozen turkey ensure it is thoroughly defrosted before cooking.

4. Ensure meat is cooked the whole way through. Follow the guidelines for cooking times and check that the juices are running clear and no pink bits remain. You can use a food thermometer to check that the meat is at least 70°C in the thickest part of the bird.

5. Do not leave leftovers lying around at room temperature but make sure hot food has cooled down before putting it in the fridge. This process can be speeded up by dividing the food into smaller portions. Reheated food should be cooked properly again not just warmed up. Food should only be reheated once.

6. The most common foodborne infections are caused by Salmonella and Campylobacter - mainly from consumption of undercooked poultry - and Escherichia coli. Just because you are not cooking meats don’t be complacent, food poisoning bacteria can contaminate all food.

7. Where available follow cooking instructions on food packaging, they are provided to ensure your safety. Don’t be tempted to consume food which has passed its ‘use-by date’.

8. If you see mould or fungus on food, don’t be tempted to trim it away, discard it. For every bit of contamination we can see there will be further bits we can’t.

9. Certain people are more susceptible to food poisoning than others. If you are serving food to children, the elderly or pregnant women you must take extra care, especially when using raw eggs.

10. Wash your hands often, and make sure you don’t use the same utensils on raw and cooked food. Cross contamination is a major way in which food poisoning bacteria are able to spread.

Dr Hilton’s top ten festive facts

1. There are approximately 4000 cases of food poisoning reported to local health authorities every December.*** Many cases go unreported, though, and the real figure is probably somewhere in the region of 120,000.

2. December is the most common month for food poisoning outbreaks, 20% being poultry related.*

3. Preparing a turkey is the second most stressful experience at Christmas. Shopping comes first.*

4. The UK spends £1.6 billion on food and drink every Christmas.**

5. Only 20% of people defrost their turkey in the ideal place, the fridge. 64% leave it standing out in the kitchen and 5% put it in the garage or garden shed (this figure rises to nearly 10% in the Midlands).*

6. 32% of people cook the stuffing inside the bird.*

7. 1⁄4 of people buy a frozen turkey.*

8. The UK will drink 250 million pints of beer this year and 35 million bottles of wine.**

9. 120,000 households will serve goose instead of turkey – the same safety precautions apply though!**

10. This year it is estimated that people will eat 25 million Christmas puddings.**

*Source: Food Standards Agency
***Source: Health protection agency

Barbara Coombes | alfa
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