Food safety a priority during the holidays

Finally. The turkey's out of the oven, the ceremonial carving of the bird complete. It's set on the table, the last plate to be added to the mouthwatering buffet.
Thanksgiving Day can be a whirlwind of mixing, stirring and cleaning, as the spread can be completed incrementally, hour by hour, dish by dish.
The sweet potato and green bean casseroles, along with the stuffing, gravy and pumpkin pie, have been tantalizing guests for a while now. And they've been sitting on the table for hours, which would cause an inward groan from health inspectors everywhere.
The flurry of activity during the holidays can cause food safety rules to go out the window, risking the contamination of the food that hosts and guests worked so hard to prepare.
Food-borne illnesses result in 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths in the United States per year, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. About 1 in 6 Americans comes down with these illnesses each year, likely resulting in nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and other symptoms.
And that's a feeling that can be avoided when sticking to correct food safety practices during the holiday season, a time when hosts are generally juggling large amounts of food prep, according to Alan Brench, Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Center for Food Defense and Emergency Planning, Preparedness and Response chief.
"You're handling a lot more food than normal when it comes to Thanksgiving," he said. "Everybody comes out of the woodwork. Instead of cooking for the normal family of three or four, you may be cooking for a dozen or more."
So, it's important not to get carried away with cooking too quickly. And that begins with the preparation of the bird before the holiday.
It's best to begin thawing it early because the method of throwing meats on the counter to defrost isn't the best tactic, according to Cheryl Chaney, Carroll County Health Department community hygiene program manager. The turkey should be put in the refrigerator to thaw, and depending on its size, this can be done as early as the Monday before Thanksgiving Day.
And there are other rules to follow on Thanksgiving or Christmas, or the days prior if you're keen on cooking early.
"The really important things are basically to practice good hygiene and sanitation," Brench said, "because you're going to be handling a lot of food - a lot of different foods - and really you don't want to cross-contaminate from uncooked food to cooked food."
Keep the hands clean is a good kitchen mantra. Scrubbing for 20 seconds, or essentially singing the happy birthday song twice through while washing with soap and warm water, will do the trick, Chaney said.
Next, it's time to start prepping the food, perhaps cutting up meat and then vegetables. But before making that switch, it's important to use a different cutting board and utensils to avoid cross-contamination, Brench said.
Once everything's chopped, the cooking commences. And the warm dishes need to be kept above 140 degrees and the cold dishes below 40 degrees, according to FDA recommendations. That in-between area is referred to as the "danger zone."
"It's the magical gap in between where microbes and things like that like to be at because that's when they can grow," Brench said.
And that can lead to a food-borne illness for the dish's consumers. So, chefs should be mindful of temperatures, and so should guests bringing dishes to the meal. Using insulated casserole holders and iceboxes can help keep food maintain the correct temperature, Brench said.
If the food was prepped early and then frozen, it should be reheated to 165 degrees - the same temperature to which the turkey should be cooked as well, just in case it spent some time in the danger zone.
"That's smart," Chaney said. "That's playing it safe because you're killing the bacteria."
The FDA recommends refrigerating meats, poultry, eggs and other perishables within two hours of cooking.
Because once the cooking's all done, it's time to eat. A buffet of mouthwatering dishes is spread across the table, as guests pick up plates and pile on the food. The holiday meal begins, the conversation flows and soon enough, it's time to put the food back in the fridge for safe keeping.

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