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