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Food Safety Should Be Top of Mind as the Holiday Season Approaches

As we consume over 40 million turkeys again this Thanksgiving, it is important to keep in mind that one in six Americans get food poisoning every year. Along with roast turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry relish, green bean casserole, pumpkin pie and more, let’s make food safety our holiday tradition. In our excitement to host our friends and family, and herald in the holiday season, let’s remind ourselves not to cut corners on the right ways to prepare, cook and serve food. Let’s remember that there are 4 non-negotiable steps to food safety: clean, separate, cook and chill.

Bindu Mayi, M.Sc., Ph.D

Bindu Mayi, M.Sc., Ph.D

CLEAN – It is okay to wash your hands, fruits and veggies, but do not wash meat, poultry or eggs, as it could splash bacteria from these foods onto other areas in your kitchen. Wash all kitchen surfaces, cutting boards and utensils used, with hot, soapy water. What do you risk if you don’t engage in CLEAN? Food poisoning! For instance, Salmonella bacteria live in the guts of humans, poultry, amphibians and reptiles. Consequently, even diverse avenues such as petting zoos, farms, and unwashed human hands can be a source of these bacteria. Salmonella can be lethal, especially to children under the age of five, immunocompromised individuals, and the elderly, putting the responsibility for prevention on both clean hands and clean food.

SEPARATE poultry, seafood, eggs and all meats from other foods, while prepping for cooking, while shopping, and while storing in the refrigerator. If your refrigerator doesn’t have a meat drawer, use a clear, plastic bin. Bacteria such as Salmonella, Clostridium perfringens and Campylobacter grow in the guts of poultry. Consequently, these bacteria can easily contaminate raw poultry and if we are not careful, also contaminate our hands, produce, cutting boards and anything else that comes in contact with raw poultry.

If you COOK poultry to an internal temperature of 165°F, you end up killing all of these stowaway bacteria. Use a food thermometer to gauge the temperature. Insert it into the thickest part of the thigh, avoiding the bone. The top five germs that cause food borne illnesses in the United States include Salmonella, Clostridium perfringens, Campylobacter, Norovirus and Staphylococcus aureus (aka Staph). Norovirus can only be killed by cooking at temperatures greater than 140°F. Since Norovirus is also easily spread by contaminated hands, it is a bad idea to cook for others if you are sick with it, or have any other diarrheal illness for that matter.

CHILL perishable groceries within two hours of shopping, or within one hour, if the temperature is 90°F or greater. You can put hot foods directly into the refrigerator or divide it into multiple, shallow containers before doing so. Most bacteria that can cause food poisoning, love temperatures between 40°F and 140°F. Once cooked, hot foods should be kept hot at a temperature of 140°F or above, using chafing dishes, warming trays or something similar. Just like humans love to feast on turkey that’s not going to scald their tongues, all kinds of bacteria love the same opportunity to feed on cooked turkey that is cooling down. Do not keep cooked foods at temperatures between 40°F and 140°F for over two hours – ample time for bacteria to either grow to high enough numbers and cause food poisoning, or for Staph to create toxins that can tolerate subsequent reheating and cause food poisoning! We don’t know which bacteria or virus may be stowing away on our hands, in the environment or on our food. But it’s easy to take the uncertainty out this holiday season and make food safety a priority.

For more information on each one of the safety steps, visit foodsafety.gov.

Nova Southeastern University fully supports an individual’s right to express their viewpoint and opinions. The views expressed in this guest editorial are that of Bindu Mayi, M.Sc., Ph.D., a professor of microbiology at NSU’s College of Medical Sciences and are not necessarily those of NSU, its President or Board of Trustees.