Food safety tips to take you through the holidays

By Liz Meszaros, MDLinx
Published November 25, 2019

Key Takeaways

The annual holiday season is here—and with it—lots of family and friends will gather from near and far to celebrate with food and drinks and holiday cheer. But before you pass the cranberry sauce down to Grandpa at the end of the table or dig into that second helping of Aunt Grace’s cheesecake, there are some food safety basics you might want to brush up on. Here’s why.

According to the CDC, about 48 million people contract food poisoning each year. Roughly 3,000 will die, and 128,00 will require hospitalization. Yikes!

In analyzing preliminary data from 2018, CDC experts found that infection caused by Campylobacter—a major source of which is chicken—has been the most commonly identified infection since 2013, and its incidence seems to be increasing. Next in line are Salmonella infections, which have maintained a steady incidence over the past 10 years.

CDC experts have also shown that the number of Cyclospora infections has markedly increased, due—in large part—to outbreaks associated with produce. Researchers also found that the number of infections that were diagnosed with culture-independent diagnostic tests has increased by 65% compared with the previous 3 years, ranging from 29% for Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli to 311% for Vibrio.

Basic food safety tips

In light of these sobering statistics—and to protect yourself, your family, and your friends from foodborne illnesses this holiday season—here are the four basics of handling food safely, compliments of the United States Department of Agriculture. And, while these come in handy during the holidays—when it seems that you just eat-drink-and-be-merry from one event after another in an endless 2 months of celebrations and excesses—they are also valid throughout the year (think barbecues and picnics):

1.  Clean often: Wash your hands and all surfaces you are using for food prep and storage many times.

  • Wash your hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds before and after handling food.

  • After cutting raw meat, use hot soapy water to wash all utensils, countertops, and especially cutting boards.

  • For extra protection, you can sanitize them with a solution of 1 tbsp[MS1]  unscented, liquid bleach per 1 gallon of water.

  • With the uptick in infections caused by Cyclospora, it may also be a good idea to wash all of your produce that will not be peeled with warm, soapy water.

2.  Separate: Do not cross-contaminate foods. Keep raw meat, poultry, fish, and all meat juices away from other food.

3.  Cook: Cook all meats to the correct temperature.

  • Beef, lamb, and veal steaks and roasts—and pork chops—should all be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 145 °F.

  • Ground beef, pork, lamb, and veal should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 °F.

  • Turkey and chicken should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 °F.

  • Measure the temperature with a food thermometer before you remove the meat from whatever heat source you are using.

4.  Chill: Refrigerate all perishable foods within 2 hours. Don’t leave them sitting out on the table at room temperature indefinitely. This is especially true for any food items that contain fish.

When serving food, remember to keep hot foods at 140 °F or warmer with chafing dishes, slow cookers, or warming trays. Cold food should be kept at 40 °F. Bowls or small serving trays of ice can be used; make sure to replace them often.

When cleaning up the remains of your feast, remember to throw away any food left out at room temperature for more than 2 hours. Use shallow containers to put away the food for quick cooling. Remember to use all leftovers within 4 days, and reheat them to 165 °F.

And here’s a handy tip if all those leftovers are just too much to deal with in the coming week: Any meat or poultry that you have defrosted in the fridge can be refrozen both before and after you have cooked it. If you thawed your turkey or any other meat by other methods, you need to cook it before refreezing.

Remember, you will survive Uncle Aloysius’ political rantings and Aunt Betty’s sloppy kisses, but you may not want to take a chance with the bacteria that could be lurking on improperly handled or prepared food. Be vigilante and meticulous with your food prep this holiday season. Have a healthy and happy Thanksgiving!

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