Home For The Holidays: Preventing Foodborne Illness At Family Gatherings
Paula Kurtzweil Walter
Stephanie K. of Eau Claire, Wis., spent her 1997 Thanksgiving break at her grandparents’ home–in bed, sick with what her family assumed was a stomach virus. But when her grandparents both came down with the same symptoms 12 hours later, some family members started to question whether the real culprit was their Thanksgiving dinner.
It certainly wouldn’t be unheard of. Foodborne illness is a frequent uninvited guest during the holiday season, and it’s often a food handler who allows it to come in and set up housekeeping. For instance:
* In 1997 in Pike County, Ohio, 13 people came down sick at a Thanksgiving family get-together. Nine tested positive for the bacterium Salmonella enteritidis. The microbe also was found in turkey, gravy, stuffing, two pies, and several other foods served at the Thanksgiving dinner, suggesting that a food handler had somehow transferred bacteria from one food to the next. This is known as cross-contamination. Also, the turkey had not been cooked to the proper temperature.
* At Christmas time in 1997, all 56 guests at a catered event in Spokane, Wash., developed cryptosporidiosis, a parasitic disease whose symptoms can persist for weeks. The unlikely source was the garnish used on a number of dishes–green onions. They became contaminated through bare-hand contact by an infected food worker.
* At Thanksgiving time in 1998, a father and son in eastern Washington state who made themselves oyster shooters got an unexpected shot of something else–disease-causing Campylobacter bacterium. The oysters, apparently the source of the bacteria, were eaten raw. Proper cooking would have killed the microbes.
Though most foodborne disease outbreaks don’t occur during the holidays (they occur most often in the summer), the holidays warrant special attention because certain foods and food practices popular during the season can increase the risk for foodborne illness. But just as traditions prevail during the season, so, too, should they when it comes to keeping food safe at the holidays.
“It’s the key health messages we talk about again and again,” says Charles “Burt” Bartleson, technical expert for the Washington State Department of Health’s food safety and shellfish program. The Fight BAC! campaign of the Partnership for Food Safety Education, of which the Food and Drug Administration is a member, sums up the key health messages this way:
* 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–don’t let bacteria 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 F and the freezer unit at 0 F, and the accuracy of the settings should be checked occasionally with a thermometer.
Cooking Up a Spread
But the holidays don’t always make it easy for food handlers to follow this advice. One reason, says Marjorie Davidson, Ph.D., FDA’s director of food safety education, is that people get caught up in the hectic pace of the holiday season.
“People get sloppy,” she says. “They’re busy, and they lose the vigilance that they might follow at other times of the year.”
At the same time, she says, most consumers are dealing with foods they seldom prepare outside of the holiday season. “A lot of people just aren’t familiar with [fixing] the big pieces of meat and poultry often served at this time of year,” she says.
The amount of time to properly thaw and cook a whole turkey, for example, is much longer than the standard-size poultry pieces and cuts of meat served year-round. When thawed correctly in the refrigerator or at a temperature of no more than 40 F, a 20-pound turkey needs two to three days to thaw completely. Thawing the turkey completely before cooking is important. Otherwise, the outside of the turkey will be done before the inside, and the inside will not be hot enough to destroy disease-causing bacteria. A stuffed turkey needs 4 3/4 to 5 1/4 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 F. If the turkey is stuffed, the temperature of the stuffing should be 165 F.
Many people also may be unused to juggling at one time the large number of dishes that often go into a traditional holiday dinner. Though they should, few may consider whether they’ll have adequate refrigerator space to store their planned menu items both before and after the dinner is served.
The party spreads and buffet dinners that often are a part of the holiday scene also pose unique challenges. How many times as a guest have you seen party and buffet foods sit out for hours on end? For safety’s sake, perishable foods should not be left at room temperature for more than two hours.
The traditional advice applies: Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold.
Add to these challenges typical holiday foods that carry their own set of risks. Traditional eggnog made with raw eggs is a common one. Fresh eggs may contain bacteria that can cause an intestinal infection called salmonellosis. Cooking can destroy the bacteria.
Bartleson recalls an outbreak three years ago in which four people at a holiday family gathering in Washington state got sick after drinking eggnog made with raw eggs. The risk associated with the raw eggs was compounded by the fact that the eggnog had been left at room temperature for several hours before being consumed, Bartleson says.
Safe alternatives are the pasteurized eggnog beverages sold in grocery dairy cases, although they, too, should be kept refrigerated.
The risk of illness from raw eggs is associated with another favorite holiday activity–baking. Eating cookie dough or batters with raw eggs carries the same risk as eggnog made with raw eggs. Unfortunately, the ones who often are the most eager to sample cookie dough or lick the spoon or bowl are among those most vulnerable to foodborne illness–kids. Commercial dough does not carry the same risk because it is made with pasteurized eggs; that is, eggs that have been heated sufficiently to kill bacteria. It also may contain an acidifying agent that kills bacteria. However, it is best to not eat raw cookie dough–instead enjoy your cookies after they have been properly cooked in the oven.
Handle with Care
Another popular food item at the holidays-mail-order food gifts–also carries risks that many consumers may be unaware of. Because mail-order food gifts can include meat, poultry, fish, and other perishables like cheesecake, these gift packages need to be handled with care. Although the mail-order food industry enjoys a good safety record, according to the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the gift giver and recipient need to take special precautions to ensure the safety of the food when it arrives. The giver needs to alert the recipient to the pending arrival of the food gift. And the recipient needs to open the package immediately to make sure that, if it’s labeled “keep refrigerated,” the food arrives in a chilled state.
Many people also like to give gifts of homemade food at the holidays. Generally, homemade foods do not pose a food-safety problem. But in some cases they can. Bartleson recalls a case in which a woman gave her father-in-law a gift of her home-pickled asparagus. She also gave him something else–a case of botulism. Fortunately, he recovered. But his experience points to the need for consumers to follow instructions carefully when preserving foods. Guidelines for home canning procedures can be found on the Internet at www.ext.usu.edu/ publica/foodpubs.htm.
Advice for the Holidays
Even though the holidays present a number of unique food-safety challenges, consumers have plenty of places to go for good information on how to do things right. Among them:
* The Fight BAC! Web site, www.fightbac.org
* FDA’s Food Information Line, toll-free 1-888-SAFEFOOD (1-888-723-3366)
* The USDA’s Meat and Poultry Hotline, 1-800-535-4555 (202-720-3333 in the Washington, D.C., area). The TTY number for the hearing impaired is 1-800-256-7072. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Most people would agree that the holidays are a special time for special activities, many of them food-related. Who would want to spoil the season by giving someone a foodborne illness? Though it certainly has been done in the past, it’s one holiday tradition not worth keeping.
–Paula Kurtzweil Walter is a writer in Gaithersburg, Md.
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