Keep Your Holiday Foods Safe

IMAGE Everyone loves getting packages in the mail. Especially when they're gifts of food—either homemade or from mail-order companies. Whether you are the sender or the recipient, here are some safety tips to keep in mind as you send and/or open your holiday food packages. You rip into the holiday wrapping paper to find a holiday delicacy—an exotic, smoked game bird with a label that says "Keep Refrigerated."Uh oh. It's been sitting in the living room for at least a week, and probably longer than that on a delivery truck. But it's smoked. Does that make it safe to eat? The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Processed Products division has the answer.They state that if a product is labeled 'Keep Refrigerated,' that's a warning that not all the bacteria have been inhibited or destroyed. Refrigeration is necessary to keep the food safe to eat.Properly refrigerated, your game bird would be safe to eat. But because it's been sitting unrefrigerated in your living room, bacteria have had plenty of time to multiply.USDA explains that smoked turkeys, game, hams, and other meats are smoked for flavor, not for preservation, and must be kept refrigerated. Products labeled as country hams, however, are different. With their high salt content and dryness, they are safe at room temperature. Bacteria can't grow on them. Other gift foods—canned meats, vacuum-packed steaks, sausage, and cheese assortments may or may not need refrigeration, depending on how they were processed.There are several ways to process meats. Some canned meat products are heated to 250°F (121ºC), like vegetables and other canned goods. This effectively sterilizes them so they are shelf-stable. But some canned hams receive only a mild heat treatment after canning and therefore are not commercially sterile. These hams must be kept refrigerated. Vacuum packaging, while inhibiting the growth of spoilage bacteria, encourages the growth of other organisms like Clostridium botulinum that thrive in low-oxygen conditions and can cause disease. Vacuum-packed steaks are as perishable as raw chicken and should be stored in the same manner.Some sausages and cheeses in gift assortments don't need refrigeration. They are shelf-stable due to brining, drying and, sometimes, additives. Food additives are added to food during processing to prevent spoilage, protect flavor, and help prevent foodborne illness.

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