In a nutshell: As an important family reunion occasion in Hong Kong, food and drinks play a crucial part of the Chinese New Year's celebration. However, it is also important to think about food safety. In addition to following the Five Keys to Food Safety , the CFS recommends the following food safety tips to ensure that holiday feasts are not only full of flavour but also safe.

Choosing and handling Chinese New Year foods and snacks

While purchasing or preparing new year foods, purchase them from reputable retail outlets. Buy sweetened lotus seeds and pistachio with natural colour and avoid those looking extraordinarily white because they may have been bleached with chemicals. Avoid buying melon seeds that are too glossy as they may contain mineral oil, which may cause gastrointestinal discomfort.

You should check the expiry date before buying any prepackaged festive items like puddings, sesame balls and sweets, and make sure the packaging is intact. Note the hygienic condition of the shop and the food containers and the hygiene practices of the staff, when buying unpackaged items like crispy triangles, sweetened dried fruits and melon seeds.

After purchase, pre-cooked foods like puddings should be stored in the refrigerator as soon as possible and be consumed before the "use by" date shown on the package. Fried festive foods such as sesame balls and crispy triangles should be kept in air-tight containers and stored in the refrigerator or in a cool, dry place.

Melon seeds and nuts are often served during the Chines Year. However, these foods contain hard hulls. Cracking melon seeds and nuts with your own teeth can result in tooth damage. Use a seed or nut cracker instead. Nut are also often used in making Chinese New Year foods. Should you be allergic to nuts or have other food allergy , read food allergen information on food labels to identify if any food or food ingredients of your allergic concern are present in the food. Avoid the food or food ingredients which you are allergic to.

Keep poon choi at safe temperatures

Chinese New Year is a great time of year to have 'winter warmers' such as poon choi when we host large gatherings. These dishes are often prepared through bulk cooking ahead of time, due to the large number of portions required. Poon choi contains various food ingredients and requires complicated and long preparation procedures such as cutting, marinating, precooking and cooling and finally re-heating. If the food is left at room temperature for too long after precooking, foodborne pathogens can multiply and some can even produce heat-stable toxins which are not readily eliminable by reheating.

Therefore, it is important to store food properly by storing precooked ingredients at 4°C or below to prevent the formation of toxins, cool down the precooked ingredients by dividing into small portions, placing in shallow containers or placing in ice bath. Reheating foods thoroughly to the core temperature of at least 75°C or above. Keep hot food above 60°C if it is not consumed immediately. Do not leave reheated food at room temperature for long, and discard it if held at room temperature for more than four hours. Of note, heat from the heat source may not be evenly distributed in a large poon choi during reheating, therefore requiring more time to bring poon choi to a boil before eating.

Reducing acrylamide in food

When frying starchy foods such as fried sesame ball, crispy triangle, and spring rolls, the high cooking temperature, usually 120°C or above, favours the formation of acrylamide in the presence of the amino acid asparagine and reducing sugars like glucose and fructose. Acrylamide is a contaminant arising from the cooking process. This substance can harm genes and therefore its intake should be kept as low as possible.

One can reduce the risk by 'going for gold' when cooking starchy foods. Generally, go for a golden-yellow or lighter colour when cooking starchy dishes, as acrylamide can be reduced by not cooking food at too high a temperature for too long. While it is impractical for us to completely avoid acrylamide in food, maintaining a healthy, balanced diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables can help reduce the risk. Moreover, some fried Chinese New Year foods may contain trans fat, which is harmful to cardiovascular health, so it is advisable to eat less.

Choking hazards

Young children, the elderly and people who have weak chewing or swallowing abilities are prone to choking after eating foods that are compressible but not easy to dissolve or tear apart, such as rice cake and tangyuan, as well as small hard foods such as nuts and melon seeds. To reduce the risk of food-related choking, caregivers are advised to modify the texture of foods by fine chopping, mashing, cooking, peeling off the skin or removing the strong fibres. As an example, caregivers could cut the rice cake into small pieces for consumption. Stay focused while chewing and swallowing food and avoid talking or moving around. Refrain from giving foods with a texture difficult to be modified (e.g. small hard foods) to people who cannot chew or swallow well.

Safe handling of leftovers

Large holiday meals could leave you with leftovers, such as rice cake and puddings, to dig in for days. For the sake of food safety, all perishables should be refrigerated within two hours of being cooked or cooled, and discard items that have been left out for longer than four hours. To minimise spoilage, leftovers should be kept in clean and airtight containers, and refrigerated within two hours of finishing preparation. All leftovers should be reheated thoroughly with the core temperature of food reaching at least 75°C, and they should only be reheated once. Take note of the expiry dates of the food items before consumption. Food beyond its "use by" date should be discarded while be wary of the quality of food beyond the "best before" date.

Stop eating and discard puddings or other food that are found mouldy or with an abnormal taste. Abnormal taste indicates that the puddings have perished due to improper or prolonged storage. Remember, a "sniff test" is not an appropriate method for testing if food is safe to eat, as food can look and smell fine even after the "use by" date has passed. Any leftovers that have been kept in the refrigerator for more than three days should be disposed. 

Click here for more tips on how to reduce food waste.

Do not eat decorative plants

During the Chinese New Year, it is common to display homes with decorative plants, such as potted mandarin orange or Narcissus, which symbolise prosperity and good fortune. Some may consider that some parts of these decorative plants are edible, yet they may contain chemicals or toxins which are not fit for human consumption.

Some peoples collect mandarin oranges and tangerines after Chinese New Year for food or salted citrus. To keep plants appealing and avoid pests, they may be sprayed with unapproved pesticides throughout production and before sale. The pesticide residues on the fruits may exceed food safety levels. Besides, ornamental plants like Narcissus may contain toxins like lycorine that can cause gastrointestinal symptoms if consumed. There have been reports of people mistaking bulbs for onions, fennel bulbs and its leaves for Chinese chives both locally and abroad.

Decorative plants are not grown for consumption. It is advisable to avoid eating these decorative plants. The trade and public should purchase and consume food from reliable sources.