Be prepared: Christmas food could be COVID-19 minefield

Lay off the finger-food this season, and get up to date with our food hygiene expert’s advice

Don’t get taken in by the vaccine feel-good factor: there be the virus on them Christmas hors d’oeuvres.

Food handling expert Paulino Schembri says finger food, a staple serving of the Christmas get-together, carries a greater risk of contamination this year with the COVID-19 virus still around.

“With finger foods, people have a habit of touching the food, and or the tray. Keep in mind that people may also have a habit of touching their nose, face, eyes and so on. That’s where we have a problem with infection, not just now with COVID, but always. Contaminated fingers touch plates, and then the next person who comes to take from the plate will also take with them the infection.”

Even serving a humble soup is fraught with some danger. Be cautious about using a ladle that is passed from one person to the other, leaving it open to contamination. “I suggest one person be designated to serve the food, but also remember to wash their hands continuously,” Schembri says.

And of course, it is not just COVID-19 one has to worry about in food handling situations. There are other viruses and bacteria which cause food-borne illnesses, which are also serious. “All the procedures and practices that applied before do also apply for COVID. So, there are very few new practices that I would suggest, specific for COVID.”

Precautions when cooking

Schembri advises against wearing gloves while preparing food. “It could do more harm than good, in fact, for the simple reason that wearing gloves may give the illusion that one’s hands are clean. The best way to go about this is a continuous and frequent washing of hands. Meaning, once you are in the kitchen, your hands should be washed every time you change your task.

“Having gloves on could give someone a false sense of security. When going from touching tomatoes or lettuce to raw food like chicken, beef or fish... hands should be washed, or gloves changed,” he says.

“If one has touched food which, may then contaminate another food, then one needs to wash their hands,” Schembri insists. “Also, when you touch the bin, or a plant, or your dog/cat or anything else you need to wash your hands. It’s that simple.”

Schembri suggests to start with the vegetables after disinfecting work surfaces to prepare food.

“You prep your veg, put it to the side, then you prep your meat – because if you miss a splatter of meat as you cut raw meat, your raw vegetables destined for a salad can get contaminated.”

The next step is to disinfect work surfaces in between tasks. “Cut the veg first, then protein – fish, meat – and disinfect in between. Wash surfaces with water and soap, then hot water, spray disinfectant, and rinse.”

Schembri says rinsing after spraying disinfectant is crucial because chemicals are just as bad for the body as pathogens. “Chemicals do cause harm, and a lot of people are getting sick from digesting them, more than from food-borne illnesses,” he adds.

He also advises that after washing plates, they get properly rinsed because soap residue could be left on plates, residue which then dissolves with the next batch of food that is plated and consumed.

Cleaning products from the supermarket

Schembri is less enthusiastic about the use of chlorine tablets to wash vegetables from the supermarket. Despite the fears of residue, he says that people could still use them at this time to put their minds at rest. “Always read the instructions, and follow them to the letter.”

But he says packaged foods such as salads that are ready for the bowl, do not require washing. “The bag is not filled with normal oxygen; its atmosphere has been modified. Bacteria cannot live, or enter the package.”

Instead he says that loose produce should be washed thoroughly, the length of time depending on how dirty they are. “Buy your fruit and veg from people who are doing less handling. For the time being, if you can buy apples that are bagged, do so, because it minimises the handling from people since they were handled once at packaging.”

Schembri warns strongly against washing produce with soap. “It is imperative that soap is not used. And no: one should not wash meat or poultry. This is because you will be reducing one risk, but increasing another one extremely, with the splattering of residue ending up around or in the sink... which can contaminate your sink. This is a serious health risk.”

He added this is the reason one should not thaw meant or poultry in the sink.

What kills the virus is a thermal kill, Schembri says: “Cooking at 75 degrees for three minutes is a thermal kill: it will kill any virus or bacteria including COVID-19. The time should be modified for other products if they need to cook at 65 degrees; then they have to be cooked for five minutes. At 60 degrees for raw beef, it should be 20 minutes.”

A word of caution

Schembri thinks the spread of COVID-19 at its initial phases could have been contained if people had already used certain hygiene practices before the start of the pandemic.

“For example, washing hands for 20 seconds... this isn’t something new! I’ve been teaching this for the last ten years. But because people are not using these practices routinely, they see it as burdensome.”

Schembri says these basic hygiene practices will keep people and those around them safer. “On average people wash their hands for three to five seconds... that’s not enough. Twenty seconds is a long time, but people have to embrace these practices for the good of everyone.”