Article by Indu Upadhyaya, Ph.D., Assistant Extension Educator, Food Safety
Holiday gatherings bring families and friends together, to spread more joy and happiness. While the merriment begins around Thanksgiving and continues until the New Years’, the food during holiday buffets, the party trays, the turkey, and other delicacies remain the main attraction of gathering. But be aware that a well-meaning and much anticipated get together can easily turn sour if the food is not safely prepared, served, or stored. Food safety should be diligently taken care of, especially during holidays, as in the delight of the season, negligence could cause serious health consequences.
Most people who get sick from eating contaminated food, might have mild illness and recover early, however susceptible populations can see lasting effects or even death. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that each year roughly one in six Americans get sick from contaminated food. Approximately 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die due to foodborne diseases across the country. These data are out of reported cases, thereby not including cases of undocumented, non-reported stomach indigestions and/or mild diarrhea or vomiting. The real number of patients getting sick from foodborne illnesses is still an unknown and hard to predict.
What you can do this season is control food contamination in your own home and community. Start with these simple steps aligning with USDA holiday food safety guidelines.
Here are the eight “always” of food safety to help everyone stay healthy during the holiday season:
1. Always wash your hands.
It’s a simple rule to follow, yet many easily forget in the midst of festivities. Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Wash hands:
- Before you start preparing food,
- After using the bathroom,
- Before serving food and eating,
- After you handle raw meat, poultry, fish, seafood, and eggs.
2. Always clean and sanitize
Clean and sanitize any surfaces that have touched raw turkey, meat or fish and their juices and will later touch food such as kitchen counters, sinks, stoves, tabletops, etc.
- Cleaning: with soap and hot water, and a paper or dish towel. Use these to remove any dirt and debris you can see.
- Sanitizing: sanitize the surfaces to kill any remaining germs. Different food grade sanitizers or sanitizing wipes can be used. Allow to air dry and follow the label instructions on commercial sanitizers to determine whether you need to rinse food preparation areas after use.
Food borne bacteria like Campylobacter and Salmonella, found in poultry products, can survive on countertops and other kitchen surfaces from four to up to 32 hours, so make sure you repeat this step after handling raw meats or turkey.
Don’t forget to clean and sanitize any areas that will encounter the turkey before and after cooking.
3. Always thaw the frozen meat/turkey safely.
Always follow USDA recommended thawing. There are three ways to safely thaw a turkey: in the refrigerator, in cold water and in the microwave.
- Refrigerator thaw: Turkey can be safely thawed in a refrigerator. Allow roughly 24 hours for every four to five pounds of turkey. After thawing, a turkey is safe in a refrigerator for one to two days, before cooking.
- Cold water thaw: The cold-water thawing method will thaw your turkey faster but needs to be done very carefully. When thawing in a cold-water bath, allow 30 minutes per pound and submerge the turkey in its original wrapping to avoid cross-contamination. Change the water every 30 minutes until the turkey is thawed. Cook immediately after thawing.
- Microwave thaw: Smaller sized turkeys that fit in the microwave can be thawed using this method. Make sure to follow manufacturer’s recommendations. Cook it immediately after thawing because some areas of the food may become warm and begin to cook during the thawing process, bringing the food to the “Danger Zone” (between 40-140°F).
It’s safe to cook a completely frozen turkey; however, it will take at least 50 percent longer to fully cook. Remember to never thaw your turkey in hot water or leave it on a countertop.
4. Always separate food items to avoid cross contamination.
Cross-contamination is the spread of bacteria from raw meat and poultry onto ready-to-eat food, surfaces, and utensils. To avoid this, always use separate cutting boards — one for raw meat and poultry, and another for fruits and vegetables. Keep raw meat, poultry, fish, and their juices away from other food. After cutting raw meats, wash the cutting board, knife, and counter tops with hot, soapy water.
USDA recommends not to wash your raw poultry due to the risk of splashing bacteria throughout your kitchen. It can easily lead to aerosolizing bacteria and cross contamination. As mentioned earlier, always clean and sanitize any surfaces that have touched raw turkey and its juices. That includes counters, sinks, stoves, tabletops, utensils, and plates. Sinks are the most contaminated areas of the kitchen, so keep them clean and don’t transfer any dirty items to clean spaces. It’s important to pay attention to your movements in the kitchen to avoid cross-contamination.
5. Always cook thoroughly.
Always follow a standard recipe to cook properly. Make sure your turkey is cooked to a safe final internal temperature of 165°F by using a reliable food thermometer. Check the thickest part of the breast, the innermost part of the wing, and the innermost part of the thigh. Cook your turkey at 325°F until its internal temperature reaches at least 165°F. Cooked, hot foods should be kept at 140°F or warmer.
When cooking a stuffed turkey, pay attention that the turkey, as well as the stuffing inside of it, reaches at least 165°F. Even if the turkey itself reaches 165°F, the stuffing inside may take longer. Its best to prepare your stuffing and turkey just before cooking. Using a cold stuffing makes it more difficult to reach the safe temperature of 165°F. Stuff the turkey loosely and use ¾ of a cup of stuffing per pound of turkey. Use a moist stuffing rather than a dry stuffing because heat destroys bacteria better in a moist environment. To be on the safe side, cook stuffing separately.
If cooking other meats, cook all raw beef, pork, lamb and veal steaks, chops, and roasts to a minimum internal temperature of 145°F as measured with a food thermometer before removing meat from the heat source. For safety and quality, allow meat to rest for at least three minutes before carving or consuming. If you prefer, you may choose to cook the meat to a higher temperature.
For ground meats: Cook all raw ground beef, pork, lamb, and veal to an internal temperature of 160°F as measured with a food thermometer.
For baked goods, avoid eating foods containing raw eggs or uncooked flour, such as cookie dough or cake batter. It’s tempting to sneak a taste during preparation, but pathogens like Salmonella present in these ingredients can lead to food poisoning if not cooked first.
6. Always follow the two-hour rule.
All perishable foods must be refrigerated within two hours of coming out of the stove or fridge, or one hour if the ambient air temperature is above 90°F. Never forget this two-hour rule put forth by USDA. After two hours, perishable food will enter the “Danger Zone” (between 40°F and 140°F), which is where bacteria can multiply quickly and cause the food to become unsafe. Discard all foods that have been left out for more than two hours.
7. Always keep warm food warm and cold food cold.
Remember the rule — keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold.
- Always transport hot foods by wrapping the dishes in insulated containers to keep their temperature above 140°F.
- Always transport cold foods in a cooler with ice or gel packs to keep them at or below 40°F.
When serving food to groups, maintain the temperature by using chafing dishes or crock pots and ice trays. Hot items should remain above 140°F and cold items should remain below 40°F. Temperature abuse of food is one of the main reasons for people falling sick very often. Always follow proper guidelines.
8. Always store leftovers appropriately.
Everyone looks forward to Thanksgiving leftovers. But they must be stored and refrigerated promptly to be safe to eat. After the turkey is served, immediately slice, and refrigerate it on shallow platters. Store leftover food in shallow containers and refrigerate promptly. Use refrigerated turkey and stuffing within three to four days. Use gravy within one to two days. Thanksgiving leftovers are safe to eat up to four days in the refrigerator. In the freezer, leftovers are safely frozen indefinitely but will keep the best quality from two to six months.
Always reheat all leftovers to 165°F, and check that temperature with a food thermometer. Cold foods should be kept at 41°F or less. And as they say, when in doubt, throw it out! Do not try to save potentially contaminated food.
Lastly, don’t prepare foods if you are sick or showing symptoms of vomiting or diarrhea or if you recently had such symptoms. Many foodborne illnesses are transmitted unknowingly by human error, by a food preparer who had these symptoms. If you are ill, let someone else do the cooking so you can have a safe and enjoyable meal with your family and friends.
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