By Johanna Hicks
During the fall and winter holidays, I often provide information on keeping food safe to prevent foodborne illness. However, food safety is a good practice all year. Festive parties, gatherings, family dinners, and celebrations are popular in November and December, bringing holiday cheer, especially with delicious food around the table. However, the fun can end any time of the year soon if the foods you eat make you and others sick.
A foodborne illness is an infection or uncomfortable irritation of the gastrointestinal tract caused by food or beverages that contain harmful bacteria, parasites, or chemicals. Common symptoms of foodborne illness include vomiting, diarrhea, and flu-like symptoms such as abdominal pain, fever, and chills. Symptoms can start within hours of eating contaminated food or drink or even hours or days later.
When dishes are left unattended for more time than recommended, harmful bacteria can begin to grow. Practicing four basic food safety rules can help prevent foodborne illness and keep you, your family or your guests feeling festive.
- Clean: Keep it clean! Wash hands with warm water and soap for 20 seconds before and after handling food. Wash surfaces such as countertops, cutting boards, dishes, and utensils with hot, soapy water after preparing food items. Rinse fruits and vegetables under cool running water and use a produce brush to remove surface dirt, especially on bumpy produce. Do not rinse raw meat and poultry before cooking. Rinsing these foods can make it more likely for bacteria to spread around sinks and countertops.
- Separate: Prevent cross-contamination! Keep raw food away from cooked foods. They recommend keeping eggs, meat, poultry, seafood, and juices away from foods you’re not cooking. Use this rule while shopping in the store, storing food in your refrigerator, and preparing your favorite meals. Consider using different colored cutting boards for foods you’re cooking, like meats, poultry, etc., and for those you will not, such as produce. Do not serve cooked eats or other food that is ready to eat on an unwashed plate that has held any raw food.
- Cook: Cook to kill harmful germs! Use a food thermometer to ensure you cook meat, poultry, and fish to a safe internal temperature. Foods should never be kept in the danger zone of 40-140ᵒF. When cooking meat, insert a food thermometer into the thickest part of the meat. Boil sauces and gravies when reheating to kill any bacteria. For baking, do not eat uncooked cookie dough containing raw eggs.
- Chill: Keep it chilled! Your refrigerator should be at or below 40ᵒF, and your freezer should be 0ᵒF or below. Defrost Thanksgiving turkeys or hams in the refrigerator, under cold running water, or in the microwave. Never leave food outside on the countertop to defrost. Once you’ve thawed the food in cold water or the microwave, you should cook it immediately. Allow proper thawing time. A large turkey can take 3 to 5 days to thaw completely in the refrigerator. Leftovers should be reheated to 165ᵒF and used within three days. And remember, “When in doubt, throw it out!”
Following these safety rules can help make your mealtimes delicious and memorable. If transporting a dish, keep it cold in a travel cooler or transport warm dishes in an insulated container. Keep foods out of the temperature danger zone. That will keep your family in the temperature safety zone!
Attitude is everything – pick a good one!
Johanna Hicks, B.S., M.Ed.
Texas A&M AgriLife Extension
Family & Community Health Agent
P.O. Box 518
1200-B W. Houston
Sulphur Springs, TX 75483