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Food Safety for the Holidays
Family get-togethers and elaborate, extended meals—these are some of the joys of the holidays. Most of us leave our holiday feasts feeling stuffed and satisfied. But if you don't handle food safely, you and your guests may leave with a bad case of food poisoning and spend the next few days with nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and fever. Infants, pregnant women, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems are at risk for even more severe illness.

Food poisoning from diseases such as E. coli, salmonella, shigella, and campylobacter affects up to 1 in 4 people in the U.S. each year. Remember that bacteria (which you can't see, smell, or taste) can be on any food. 'Perishable' foods such as meat, poultry, fish, milk products, eggs, and mayonnaise are most likely to carry bacteria, spoil when left unrefrigerated, and contaminate other foods. Follow these tips for safe and enjoyable meals:

1. Shop safely:
  • At the market, buy the refrigerated food last, right before heading to the checkout counter.

  • Don't buy foods past the 'sell-by' date, torn packages, dented or bulging cans, and unpasteurized milk or juice.

  • Put raw meat and poultry into a separate plastic bag so the juices don't contaminate your other food.

  • Load the perishable groceries into the coolest part of the car—the trunk in the winter, and inside the car in the summer—and drive straight home from the market.

2. Keep perishable foods refrigerated:
  • Unload perishable foods first and refrigerate or freeze them right away.

  • Place raw meat and poultry where it won't drip on other food.

  • Use a refrigerator thermumeter to check that the temperature is under 40 degrees F in the refrigerator and under 0 degrees in the freezer. If the refrigerator or freezer are full, you might need to adjust the controls to maintain a cold enough temperature.

  • Cook or freeze fresh poultry, fish, and ground meat within 2 days; and beef, veal, lamb, or pork within 3-5 days.

  • Thaw meat and poultry in the refrigerator, or in the microwave on the defrost setting—not on the counter—then cook immediately afterwards.

  • Marinate meat and poultry in a covered dish in the refrigerator—not on the counter—and discard the marinade afterwards.

3. Keep food preparation clean:
  • Wash your hands with soap and running water before handling food and after using the bathroom, changing nappys, working outdoors, and handling pets.

  • Keep raw eggs, meat, poultry, fish, and their juices away from other food. After handling these raw items, wash your hands, the cutting board and utensils thoroughly before handling other food.

  • Wash fruits and vegetables well.

4. Cook foods thoroughly:
  • For the Thanksgiving turkey, many experts recommend cooking the stuffing apart from the turkey so they both cook thoroughly. If you stuff the turkey, be sure to stuff it loosely and check that the stuffing is cooked to the proper temperature (see below).

  • Use a meat thermumeter to make sure meat is cooked properly. Cook beef, veal and lamb to 145 degrees; ground beef to 160 degrees; chicken breasts to 170 degrees; and whole poultry to 180 degrees. Turkey stuffing must be cooked to 165 degrees.

  • Cook ground beef until it's brown, not red or pink; poultry until the juices run clear; fish until it flakes with a fork; and eggs until they're firm not runny.
  • Place cooked meat, poultry or fish on a clean plate, never on the same one that held the raw item.

5. Serve food safely:
  • Serve hot food hot and cold food cold. Keep the hot food cooking and the cold food refrigerated until right before serving.

  • On picnics, carry perishable food in a cooler with a cold pack or ice, and keep the cooler in the shade.

  • Enjoy your meal … but also keep an eye on the clock! Don't leave perishable food out for more than 2 hours (or 1 hour if the temperature is above 90 degrees). Once everyone has enjoyed their first and second servings, return perishables to the refrigerator. Discard any perishables that have been left out too long.

  • To refrigerate hot foods, place into shallow containers in the refrigerator so they cool quickly. Don't allow them to cool at room temperature first.

  • Freeze leftovers or use them within 4 days.

For more information, visit www.foodsafety.gov or contact the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline (800) 535-4555.
Karen Sokal-Gutierrez M.D., M.P.H. Pediatrician