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food for thought

Thoroughly cooking poultry is one part of preventing foodborne illness — ensuring raw meat is kept separate during preparation and carefully handling and storing leftovers are also important.Stock image

With so many of us planning holiday meals this week, now is a good time to brush up on food safety rules.

If the turkey isn’t cooked enough, the gravy sits out too long or leftovers aren’t stored properly, your food-centered celebration could be a source of foodborne illness.

Here are some safety tips to keep in mind.

What causes foodborne illness?

Food poisoning is caused by eating foods contaminated with infectious microbes or their toxins. Illness-causing microbes can be transferred to food at any point during their production – during the slaughter of animals, while growing fruits and vegetables (e.g., using contaminated water) or when handling them in the kitchen, for example.

Symptoms such as stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, chills, fever and headache can appear within minutes after eating a contaminated food or within days or weeks, when they’re no longer clearly linked to a particular food. Young children, pregnant women, older adults and people with weakened immune systems are more likely to get sick or to have a serious illness.

Health Canada estimates than one in eight Canadians become ill from contaminated foods every year.

The pandemic, though, may have helped to prevent foodborne illness. According to U.S. data, cases of food poisoning were lower in 2020, compared to previous years, perhaps due to increased handwashing, less international travel and fewer restaurant meals.

Because you can’t see, smell or taste bacteria that cause food poisoning, the only way to guard against foodborne illness is to handle and prepare foods safely in the first place.

Prevent cross-contamination. Mishandling raw meat, poultry and fish can cause illness-causing bacteria to spread from one food to another.

Separate raw meat from other foods in your grocery cart, grocery bags and refrigerator. Use one cutting board for fresh produce and a separate one for raw meat, poultry and seafood. Wash hands, utensils and cooking surfaces with hot soapy water before and after handling food.

Don’t rinse your holiday bird before roasting it. Doing so can unknowingly scatter bacteria to nearby foods, utensils and the countertop.

Cook to safe temperatures. Use a digital food thermometer to ensure foods are cooked to a safe minimum temperature that’s needed to kill off harmful bacteria.

If roasting an unstuffed whole turkey, cook it to 170°F (77°C), measured in the thigh, or 180°F (82°C) for a stuffed bird. A roasted turkey breast should reach a temperature of 165°F (74°C).

The safest way to cook stuffing is separately in its own dish to a minimum temperature of 165°F (74°C).

Cook roast beef (medium-rare) to a temperature of 145°F (63°C) and ham to 160°F (71°C).

Safeguard leftovers. Minimize the time food stays in the “danger zone,” a temperature range of 40°F (4°C) to 140°F (60°C) in which bacteria multiply rapidly. Refrigerate or freeze holiday leftovers within two hours of cooking.

To allow hot foods to cool quickly in the refrigerator, store them in shallow containers.

To ensure safety and best quality, most refrigerated leftovers should be eaten within three to four days. Leftover gravy needs to be used within two days.

Reheat leftover turkey to a safe temperature; bring gravy and soup to a rolling boil.

Practise produce safety. Rinse vegetables and fruit under running water, even those with skins or rinds that won’t be eaten, just before use. Scrub thick-skinned produce like potatoes, carrots, squash and parsnips with a brush or your hands.

Cut away damaged or bruised areas since harmful bacteria can thrive in these places.

Don’t clean prewashed greens. Additional handling could introduce bacteria from your hands, the cutting board, the sink or nearby raw foods.

Avoid buying prepackaged greens that contain spoiled leaves. Damage to greens can stimulate bacteria to grow and multiply, especially when they’re stored in packages.

Pass on raw cookie dough. It’s tempting to sample raw holiday cookie dough, but I advise against it. Flour is a raw ingredient that’s meant to be cooked before eaten.

And if your recipe includes eggs, baking to a temperature of at least 160°F (71°C) is needed to destroy salmonella bacteria that may come from raw eggs.

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is director of food and nutrition at Medcan. Follow her on Twitter @LeslieBeckRD

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