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Food safety helps holidays stay healthy

by Cynthia Taggart
| November 17, 2010 8:00 PM

Panhandle Health District

Kristina Keating's food safety standards were higher than most people's before she started a family two-and-a-half years ago. Since the birth of her son, Michael, though, the environmental health specialist for the Panhandle Health District (PHD) has begun clearing leftovers from her refrigerator within a few days after she first stores them.

"I didn't think about that as much before having kids," she said. "Now, I won't give my kids leftovers after a couple of days."

Kristina coordinates PHD's food licensing, inspection and education program. She knows what temperatures cooked foods need to reach to be safe to eat and how long food can sit on the counter without developing sickening bacteria such as staphylococcus. Kristina knows what a food safety obstacle course the holiday season presents.

"Potlucks, parties," she said. "They're fun, but I'm kind of surprised we don't get more reports of people getting ill."

Getting sick from spoiled food is no picnic. Some bacteria cause diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps. Sickness can last days, and even though most people recover without medical help, others end up hospitalized and on antibiotics.

Children, the elderly and people with chronic medical conditions are the most susceptible to food-borne illness. Kids catch so many germs that Kristina is particularly careful when she prepares food at home.

She washes her hands regularly and always after touching raw meat. She sanitizes her counters and any other surfaces on which she prepares food. She controls the temperature of the food she serves.

"Food that sits long enough on the table at room temperature is a perfect place for bacteria growth," she says. "Things like potato or macaroni salads, cream and custard-filled desserts, turkey or deviled eggs should be thrown out if they've sat at room temperature more than four hours."

Controlling the temperature of the turkey can save Thanksgiving. The safe way to thaw a turkey is in the refrigerator over a few days or in a cold water bath. Thawing a turkey at room temperature warms the outside while the inside stays frozen, promoting the development of salmonella bacteria. Thawing a turkey in warm water produces the same result.

A thermometer will signal when the cooked turkey is the right temperature to eat. If the temperature has reached 180 F in the thigh, the rest of the turkey usually is at least a safe-to-eat 165F. Inserting a thermometer into several parts of the bird is the best way to be sure. The stuffing inside the turkey is also safe to eat at 165.

The less time cooked turkey sits at room temperature, the better. Within two hours of cooking, it should be stored in the refrigerator. Leftovers, regardless of how delicious they are, stay safe a maximum of four days at 45 F.

Cleaning after a meal is as important to preventing food-borne illness as careful food preparation.

"I make sure things are not just cleaned but sanitized," Kristina says. "I'm much more diligent now because kids touch everything."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend sanitizing kitchen surfaces with a mixture of one teaspoon of household bleach (5.25%) and one gallon of water.

For more information on food safety and guidelines to preparing a safe Thanksgiving meal, visit www.phd1.idaho.gov.

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