Preventing Foodborne Illness at Family Holiday Gatherings

To avoid the risk of foodborne illnesses, pay special attention to the handling and preparation of foods during the upcoming holiday season.

Although foodborne disease outbreaks are not common during this time of year, people at the highest risk of being affected by foodborne illness – the elderly, children, and individuals with weakened immune systems, including pregnant women – should be mindful of the potential risks.

Because holidays present a number of unique food safety challenges, consumers should take appropriate precautions in handling, preparing and cooking foods.

To ensure that the holiday foods are not only delicious but also safe, the Food and Drug Administration also is providing several tips to reduce the risk of the most common foodborne illnesses.

· Clean: Wash hands and food-contact surfaces often. Bacteria can spread throughout the kitchen and get onto cutting boards, knives, sponges, and counter tops.

· Separate: Don’t cross-contaminate – bacteria can spread from one food product to another. This is especially true for raw meat, poultry and seafood. Experts caution to keep these foods and their juices away from ready-to-eat foods.

· Cook: Cook to proper temperatures. Foods are properly cooked when they are heated for a long enough time and at a high enough temperature to kill the harmful bacteria that cause foodborne illness.

· Chill: Refrigerate promptly. Public health officials advise consumers to refrigerate foods quickly because cold temperatures keep most harmful bacteria from growing and multiplying. Refrigerators should be set at 40 degrees F and the freezer at 0 degrees F, and the accuracy of the settings should be checked occasionally with a thermometer.

Baked goods: FDA advises consumers not to eat uncooked cookie dough, homemade or commercial, or batters made with raw fresh eggs because raw fresh eggs may contain bacteria that can cause an intestinal infection called salmonellosis. Thorough cooking kills the bacteria that cause the infection.

Egg Nog: Traditional eggnog made with raw eggs also presents the same risk to consumers – salmonellosis. While cooking can destroy the disease-causing bacteria, consumers can still become ill when the eggnog is left at room temperature for several hours before being consumed. Safe alternatives are pasteurized eggnog beverages sold in grocery dairy cases; these products should be kept refrigerated.

Apple cider and other juices: Apple cider is often served during the holiday season. Apple cider and most juices are pasteurized or otherwise treated to destroy harmful bacteria. Pasteurized juice can be found in the refrigerated or frozen sections of stores. Treated juice is shelf-stable and is normally found in the non-refrigerated juice section of stores. It’s packaged in boxes, bottles or cans. Unpasteurized or untreated juice is normally found in the refrigerated sections of grocery stores, health-food stores, cider mills or farm markets. Such juices must have this warning on the label:

WARNING: This product has not been pasteurized and therefore, may contain harmful bacteria that can cause serious illness in children, the elderly, and persons with weakened immune systems.

If you can’t tell whether a juice has been processed to destroy harmful bacteria, either don’t use the product or boil it to kill any harmful bacteria.

Turkey: Thawing the turkey completely before cooking is important and necessary to reduce the risk of foodborne illness. If a turkey is not properly thawed, the outside of the turkey will be done before the inside, and the inside will not be hot enough to destroy disease-causing bacteria. Allow the correct amount of time to properly thaw and cook a whole turkey. For example, a 20-pound turkey needs two to three days to thaw completely when thawed in the refrigerator at a temperature of no more than 40 degrees F.

A stuffed turkey needs 4 ¾ to 5 ¼ hours to cook completely. To check a turkey for doneness, insert a food thermometer into the inner thigh area near the breast of the turkey but not touching bone. The turkey is done when the temperature reaches 180 degrees F. If the turkey is stuffed, the temperature of the stuffing should be 165 degrees F.

Oysters and Seafood: Be sure to cook oysters thoroughly at home or have them cooked thoroughly when eating out. Buy only fresh seafood that is refrigerated or properly iced. Always cook fish thoroughly. Cooking fish until it is opaque and flaky helps destroy any bacteria that may be present. All consumers should avoid eating raw oysters or shellfish. People with liver disorders or weakened immune systems are especially at risk for getting sick.