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Prevent food contamination by cleaning counters and cutting boards
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Although its name might suggest that it is related to fish, salmonella — a bacterium — is the leading cause of some 40,000 preventable cases of food poisoning annually, says the Centers for Disease Control.
While it can contaminate fish or other foods that are not properly heated or refrigerated, salmonella and other bacteria are definitely not desirable guests to invite to a holiday dinner. For several reasons, those holiday dinners may put more people at risk for food poisoning.
One reason is that party buffets or potlucks are more popular during this time, and food — especially if it must be transported to these events — may not be kept properly hot or cold.
Also, popular homemade holiday gifts such as vegetables or herbs packed in oil pose the risk of botulism, a nerve toxin that the CDC says is produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum and sometimes by strains of Clostridium butyricum and Clostridium baratii. It can cause paralysis or even be fatal when ingested. Oil-packed foods will last about a week if refrigerated; otherwise, they should be frozen.
Eggnog, a popular beverage during the holiday season, poses another risk of salmonella poisoning, especially the homemade variety, since raw eggs — one of the main sources of salmonella — are used in its preparation. Commercial eggnog is pasteurized, which kills the bacterium.
“Although it's not recommended to drink eggnog made with raw eggs, eggnog fortified with strong spirits can at least reduce the risk of food poisoning,” says Dr. Richard Hartel, a professor of food engineering in the Department of Food Science at University of Wisconsin-Madison.
In an article from The Capital Times (Wisconsin), he and his co-author Anna Kate Hartel also state that alcohol kills salmonella. Although they do not endorse overindulging in alcoholic beverages just to kill the bacteria, they add, “Heating the egg mixture slowly to 160 degrees in a homemade recipe is sufficient to destroy the salmonella and ensure a beverage safe from contamination.”
Another common salmonella risk is potato salads, especially if they are left unrefrigerated, since they often contain dressings that are made with eggs. The bacterium can be found in other foods, too. These may include ground meat, fruits and vegetables, or even some processed frozen foods such as frozen pot pies.
Since the holidays are often associated with turkey and dressing, proper food handling precautions can prevent the illness associated with salmonella, whose symptoms are diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps 12 to 72 hours later, says the Food Poisoning Health Center at WebMd online. The illness can last up to a week, but complications can lengthen it.
Prevention begins before the turkey is even brought home. A space large enough in the refrigerator needs to be cleared out to accommodate it.
Improper thawing of frozen poultry increases salmonella risk. If the bird is thawed unrefrigerated, the outer portions may be at room temperature while the interior is still frozen. The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service's website recommends that for every 4 to 5 pounds, allow approximately 24 hours in a refrigerator set at 40°F or below.
If preparing a stuffed turkey for the holidays, be sure that the stuffing inside the bird reaches 165°F to be safe to eat, especially if the stuffing contains raw eggs. A metal stem food thermometer is a good investment to test for the right temperature. It is also a good idea to remove the cooked stuffing from the bird's cavity as soon as possible, since the stuffing and the meat cool at different rates.
Other precautions can help prevent the spread of salmonella and other food-related illnesses. The Albuquerque Department of Public Health's website and other online sites host lists of preventive measures.
• Keep hands and utensils clean. Wash often with hot soapy water. A sanitizing rinse for utensils also helps, especially if you do not own a dishwasher. (Use 1 tablespoon of liquid bleach per gallon of water.)
• Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Bacteria grow best at temperatures between 40° and 140°F. Perishable foods should not be left at room temperature for more than two hours.
• Avoid cross-contamination from cutting boards or utensils. Wash cutting boards with hot soapy water, especially after cutting meats and certainly before cutting vegetables on the same board. Better still, use two separate cutting boards. Also, avoid allowing juices from raw meat to contaminate other areas of the kitchen or to get onto foods that do not get cooked prior to eating them.
• Thaw and store food properly. Thaw food in the refrigerator, the microwave or under cool running water. For faster cooling of leftovers, place them into small, shallow dishes in the refrigerator. It is also better to debone a cooked turkey prior to storing, since the bones and the meat cool at different rates.
With proper food preparations, families and guests can enjoy fine holiday cooking without the uninvited guests: salmonella and other food-borne bacteria that could ruin an otherwise perfect holiday meal.