Food safety tips for the holidays

Food safety tips for the holidays

By Jeff Havens, Staff Writer

Here are some tips to help keep you and your family safe from a food-borne illness this holiday season.

The goal of handling food safely is primarily to keep bacteria from contaminating food and growing in numbers large enough to cause illness. However, disease-causing viruses are also an issue.

People who have compromised immune systems such as cancer patients, the elderly and the very young, are especially vulnerable to becoming ill from food. Therefore, these individuals may require a special diet. For the rest of us, here are some guidelines:

1. Hand washing

To prevent food-borne illness, wash your hands before handling food, especially after going to the bathroom. The surface of people’s hands often becomes covered with bacteria and viruses that can cause illness. Washing your hands removes these organisms.

In addition, wash your hands between handling raw foods and ready-to-eat foods. For example, let’s say you are going to prepare uncooked turkey, meat, fish or chicken, and then make a salad. Wash your hands between preparing the uncooked animal product and the salad. Better yet, prepare the salad first.

Washing your hands too often may damage your skin. In these cases, inexpensive plastic gloves may be an option. However, the gloves too can become contaminated. Therefore, whenever one would normally wash his or her hands, the gloves should be changed.

2. Defrosting

You may choose from several options when deciding how to defrost your frozen turkeys and other animal foods. The primary options for defrosting are: in the refrigerator, under cold running water, the microwave oven, or as part of the cooking process.

The reason proper defrosting is important is because the outside of the food will become warmer sooner than the inside of food. Uneven temperature differences allow time for bacteria to multiply. The goal is to keep the food cold enough to prevent dangerous levels of bacteria but warm enough to allow for defrosting.

Should you choose to defrost large pieces of meat, poultry or fish in the refrigerator, allow for two or more days to fully defrost. When using cold running water for defrosting, make sure the water flows quickly enough over the food.

The safest way to defrost food is to make this step part of the cooking process. However, including this step will require longer cooking times.

3. Cooking

Turkeys and other large pieces of meat must be thoroughly cooked to minimize risk. The best way to ensure that such foods have safely cooked is to insert a metal-stemmed thermometer into the center of the thickest part of the food to measure its temperature. To be safe, the center should reach 180 degrees Fahrenheit.

4. Storage

After dinner, cut up large pieces of meat and turkey to allow the food to cool off faster in the refrigerator. Don’t let animal-based leftovers such as meat, fish and turkeys sit out at room temperature for too long—30 to 45 minutes maximum.

5. Washing food

Most fruits and vegetables should be washed before consumption to not only remove harmful bacteria, viruses, and also chemicals. Melons such as cantaloupe and honey-dew should also be washed before slicing them open to keep harmful organisms from being transferred to the inside of the fruit.

Following these tips should help make your holidays safer. Above all, when in doubt, throw it out!

Jeff Havens is a registered environmental health practitioner in Wisconsin, with a specialty in food safety. Havens is also a former high school science teacher and college lab manager.

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