By Sherry Mullenix

Special to The North Jefferson News

When it comes to holiday foods, a lot of people get distracted with the excitement of the season and get a little forgetful in regards to good food handling techniques.

Here are some recently documented examples:

Fifty-six people at a catered event in Spokane, Wash., developed cryptosporidiosis, a parasitic disease, whose symptoms lasted for weeks. The source was the green onions used as garnish, contaminated through bare hand contact from an infected worker.

Okay, your event is not catered, so you have nothing to worry about right? Think again.

Recently in Pike County, Ohio, a family of 13 became sick at a Thanksgiving get-together, when nine of them tested positive for Salmonella, which was found in the turkey, gravy, stuffing and two pies. The home-prepared food had been contaminated due to inadequate hand washing and using the same surface and tools to prepare all the dishes.

Because the holiday season presents special food safety challenges, precautions are necessary in handling, cooking and refrigerating foods. Keep in mind that the elderly, children and individuals with weakened immune systems – including pregnant women, are especially at risk for food borne illnesses.

The FDA has suggested a simple four step method to help minimize the risk of foodbourne illnesses:

• Clean: Wash hands and food-contact surfaces often. Bacteria can spread through the kitchen and get on cutting boards, knives, sponges and countertops.

• Separate: Don’t allow bacteria to spread from one food to another. This is especially true of raw meat, poultry (turkeys), and seafood. Keep these foods, and their juices away from other foods.

• Cook: Cook to a proper temperature. Foods are properly cooked when they are heated for a long enough time and at a high enough temperature to kill harmful bacteria. Use a thermometer and follow the recommended temperature on the package for doneness.

• CHILL: Refrigerate promptly. Public health officials’ advise consumers to refrigerate foods quickly because the cold temperatures inhibit the growth of bacteria.

Because most individuals are dealing with dishes that they seldom prepare other than during the holiday season, a lot of people are unfamiliar with handling such a large meal and working with the larger number of different dishes being prepared at one time. There are also juggling other concerns like who’s coming to dinner, decorations, cleaning and house guests; the kitchen can get quite hectic.

So let’s slow down for a minute and consider some important facts about the most recognized and often prepared holiday dish — the turkey.

The amount of time needed to properly thaw and cook a whole turkey is much longer than the standard chicken served year round. Thaw the turkey in its original wrapper in the bottom of the refrigerator. Thawing the turkey on the counter is an invitation for bacteria to multiply. When thawed correctly, in the refrigerator or at a temperature no more than 40 degrees, a 20 pound turkey will take two to three days to thaw completely.

Thawing the turkey completely before cooking is essential. Otherwise, the outside of the turkey will be done before the inside, and the temperature on the inside will not be high enough to destroy the disease-causing bacteria.

To check for doneness, insert a food thermometer into the inner thigh area near the breast, but not touching a bone.

A turkey is done when the temperature reaches 180 degrees. If the turkey is stuffed, the stuffing should be 165 degrees.

Some additional turkey “how to’s” include: Remove the neck and giblets. Combine stuffing ingredients just before cooking. For optimal safety, cook stuffing outside the bird in a casserole. If you plan on cooking it in the turkey, fill it loosely just before cooking. Follow the recommended temperature and cooking time on the package or cookbook. The weight of the turkey is an important factor.

Holiday buffets and spreads offer additional and unique challenges. For safety’s sake, perishable foods should not be left at room temperature for more than two hours. Leftover turkey will keep in the refrigerator three to four days.

Remember, when in doubt, throw it out. Your safety is not worth the risk. Following some good kitchen techniques this year could keep you from being the talk of the family next year.

Happy Holidays.

Sherry Mullenix (J.D., R.N.) co-owns The Pharmacy in Mount Olive with her husband, Steve Mullenix (R.Ph). They can be reached at 631-1201.

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