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cutting meatPlanning and cooking a lavish holiday meal for friends and family while balancing the other demands of everyday life is all the more reason why home cooks should take time to familiarize themselves with the basics of food safety, according to one expert.

"Anyone involved in planning and executing such a meal during this hectic time of year should ask the question: Am I taking all the adequate precautions against foodborne illness?" says Dr. Jean Weese, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System food safety specialist and Auburn University professor of poultry who heads Alabama Extension System’s food safety team.

"All cooks, especially during this time of year, should understand that it takes only a single crop of juice from a contaminated turkey or chicken to cause food poisoning."

Weese advises holiday cooks to familiarize themselves with what she describes as the four basics of holiday food safety.

Regular Hand Washing

Mom’s constant admonishment to wash your hands is the cornerstone of safe food handling and preparation, according to Weese.

hand washing"Anyone involved in food preparation should wash his or her hands a full 20 seconds before and after handling raw products, especially poultry and meat," Weese advises.

Moreover, kitchen sinks should be used only for washing associated with food preparation.

"Consign the bathroom sinks to other types of activities, whether this happens to be washing up after gardening or other outdoor chores, but limit the kitchen sink only to food preparation-related washing," Weese says.

Bar soaps should be kept clean and left on a soap dish that allows water to drain. Otherwise, the soap can become contaminated with germs like any other kitchen item, according to Weese. Pump-action soap dispensers provide better protection against pathogens than bar soap, she says.

Avoid Cross-Contamination

Cross-contamination occurs when germs from one food are passed onto another.

"Typically, this occurs when raw meat, poultry or seafood touch uncooked foods such as salads and fruits," says Weese. Cross-contamination can also occur from exposure to unwashed hands, utensils and countertops.

"Meat products should be placed on a plate or tray to prevent juices from dripping onto other foods," Weese says.

As an added precaution, cutting boards for raw meat products should not be used for salads and other uncooked foods unless they have been thoroughly sanitized, according to Weese.

"Raw meat should be returned to the refrigerator or placed in an oven and cooked after preparation," she says. "Then the surfaces on which this meat was prepared should be cleaned and sanitized thoroughly before any other food is placed on them," she says.

Dirty sponges, dish cloths and towels should always be regarded as breeding grounds for all manner of harmful pathogens. Weese advises using paper towels or freshly cleaned cloths intead.

"Counter tops should be sanitized with a mixture of a tablespoon of chlorine bleach in a gallon of water," she advises. "Another option is to buy sanitizing wipes to clean surfaces."

Thoroughly Prepare and Cook Food

The first rule of thumb when preparing a turkey is to allow sufficient time &endash; up to 4 days in some cases — for it to defrost in the refrigerator.

"Make sure the bird is placed in a dish or tray on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator to safeguard against any of its drippings being exposed to other foods during defrosting," Weese recommends.

Birds should be cooked within a few days of defrosting. A meat thermometer should be used to ensure it reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit before serving, according to Weese.

Stuffing should be cooked separately from the turkey, she recommends.

Weese also recommends avoiding raw egg recipes.

"All egg dishes should be cooked until they reach 160 degrees Fahrenheit before serving," she stresses.

Likewise, sauces, soups and gravies should be brought to a boil before serving. Leftovers should be heated to at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit before they are served again.

Cold spots in food should be eliminated before microwaving. For best results, food should be stirred and rotated while it is in the microwave.

Follow the Two-Hour Rule

Potluck dinners, a holiday staple in many families, are fraught with risk, especially if they’ve been left out for more than a couple of hours, according to Weese.

frozen food"As a rule, all perishable foods should be returned to the refrigerator after two hours," she stresses. "Before returning these items, be sure to divide large amounts of leftovers into shallow containers for quick cooling in the refrigerator."

Also, avoid stuffing the refrigerator.

"Cold air must circulate freely within the refrigerator for the food to remain safe," Weese cautions.

As an added precaution, refrigerator temperatures should remain at a constant 40 degrees Fahrenheit, while freezers should be maintained at or below zero degrees Fahrenheit, according to Weese, who adds that these temperatures should be verified occasionally with an appliance thermometer.


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