Thanksgiving and the holiday season are right around the corner: that means turkey, pumpkin pie and football! For many people, it also means large gatherings for holiday meals, lots of cooking and plenty of leftovers. That makes now the perfect time to review best practices for keeping your food safe for you, your family and guests. Nobody wants their Thanksgiving – or any other day of the year – to be marred by a bout of food poisoning.
What is Food Poisoning?
Foodborne illness, also called food poisoning, affects 1 in 6 Americans every year. If you have ever experienced the misery of food poisoning – nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, dehydration, fever – you already know how important food safety is! But food poisoning can be more than just an inconvenience for a few days – depending on the type of bacteria that causes it, it can be especially dangerous, leading to hospitalization. And a food poisoning event is more dangerous for the very young, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. That’s why it is important to avoid food poisoning altogether by handling, preparing and storing food safely.
If you experience food poisoning, usually the best thing to do is take it easy and try to keep some liquids down until you begin to feel better. However, if you experience bloody stools, a fever of 102° F or higher, diarrhea for more than three days or inability to keep fluids down, seek medical attention right away.
What Makes Food Unsafe?
To understand how to stop food poisoning, it’s helpful to understand what causes it in the first place: unhealthy levels of germs in the form of bacteria, viruses or parasites. There are more than 250 different food borne illnesses! That’s a lot, but in the United States, there are five food-related illnesses that most commonly cause us problems: norovirus, salmonella, C. perfringens, Campylobacter and Staphylococcus aureus (Staph).
Some foods may come with germs already on them. Raw produce often has bacteria on it – that’s why it needs to be washed before eating. Raw or undercooked meat, poultry, fish, shellfish and eggs may also contain bacteria that can make us sick, which is why food must be cooked to recommended temperatures. And even food that has been cooked properly can still develop bacteria – that’s why it has to be refrigerated if not eaten right away. Bacteria will grow rapidly on food that is in the temperature “danger zone,” or temperatures between 40° F and 140°F. To be safe, food must be maintained at temperatures below or above the danger zone.
The Food Cycle
The food we eat goes through a lot of steps before it makes it to our dinner plate. Let’s assume it’s arrived at your local grocery store in good condition, thanks to good practices by the farmers and ranchers who grew or raised it, as well as regular safety inspections by government agencies like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). We’ll also assume that it was transported to the store safely and that your local grocer has kept everything at the right temperature and is only selling fresh groceries to its customers. After that point, it’s up to you to keep your food safe!
When you are grocery shopping, keep in mind the importance of keeping meat, dairy and other perishable items cold. Shop for your dry groceries first and pick up your cold items right before checking out. Head straight home and get those perishable groceries in the refrigerator.
Speaking of the refrigerator, it should always be set to a temperature of under 40° F. Think about when you’ll be using the food you just bought. If you bought some meat that you will not cook for several days, it may be best to put it in the freezer.
When it comes time to prepare your food, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends thinking about food safety in four phases: clean, separate, cook and chill. Here’s how that breaks down:
- Wash your hands: food can be contaminated by the germs on our hands. Wash your hands with soap and water before you touch food, taking enough time to sing “Happy Birthday” to yourself.
- Keep the kitchen clean: Make sure utensils, cutting boards, pots and pans, etc. are clean before you start prepping and cooking. Washing them in a dishwasher or by hand both work, as long as you’re using hot water and soap. For countertops, use a kitchen-safe cleaner that kills bacteria.
- Do rinse fruit and vegetables: Produce can contain bacteria, so it’s important to always wash it before eating or preparing. It can also still have dirt on it.
- Do not rinse raw meat. While people used to be told to rinse off chicken and pork, this is no longer recommended. Rinsing meat can cause bacteria to splash and land on your counters – or you. Plus, it is an unnecessary step – the cooking process will kill the bacteria.
- Keep meat, poultry and fish separate from other foods to prevent cross-contamination.
- That means using separate cutting boards and utensils for raw meats and other food, such as produce.
- Take advantage of plastic bags at the grocery store to prevent juices from meat leaking on to other foods
- Meat must be cooked to a certain temperature to ensure that it is safe. The only reliable way to know if that temperature has been reached is with a food thermometer; appearance and color of the meat are not adequate to gauge doneness. An instant-read (i.e., digital) thermometer, inserted into the thickest part of the meat and not touching a bone, is the most effective means to get an accurate temperature.
- Following are the recommended minimum temperatures for meats, fish and poultry, as well as casseroles and leftovers:
- 145°F for whole cuts of beef, pork, veal, and lamb (then allow the meat to rest for three minutes before carving or eating; the meat temperature will continue to rise while resting)
- 160°F for ground meats, such as beef and pork
- 165°F for all poultry, including ground chicken and turkey
- 165°F for leftovers and casseroles
- 145°F for fresh ham (raw)
- 145°F for fin fish or cook until flesh is opaque
- As stated above, keep the refrigerator temperature below 40°
- The only safe ways to thaw frozen food are in the refrigerator, in cold water or by defrosting in the microwave. NEVER leave frozen food out on the counter to thaw. While part of the food is still frozen, the thawed portion can easily rise above 40° F, allowing bacteria to multiply quickly.
- Do not allow leftover food to sit out for more than two hours after it is done cooking. If eating outdoors and the air temperature is 90° F or higher, get the leftovers in refrigeration within one hour. When food is left sitting out longer, bacteria will begin to grow.
Dealing with Leftovers
Contrary to what many people think, it is not necessary for food to cool completely before placing it in the fridge; it is more important to get it in quickly. However, for large portions – especially a big piece of meat, such as a turkey – it’s a really good idea to cut it into smaller portions to store separately. The smaller portions will ensure the food cools down more quickly.
“With the holidays right around the corner, it’s important for us all to remember how to handle leftovers – we often have a lot of them this time of year, especially at Thanksgiving,” says Dr. Daniel Tran, a hospitalist. “With the hectic nature of the holidays, it’s easy to overlook that two-hour window to get all of your leftovers in the fridge. Nonetheless, it is really important to do so. If someone wants to come back for leftover turkey and fixings a few hours later, they can get them out of the fridge and heat up their second meal in the microwave.”
The other important aspect of leftover safety is remembering how long the food will be good for. Even if you put your leftovers in the refrigerator right away, they won’t last forever. According to the USDA, Thanksgiving leftovers in the refrigerator are good for 3-4 days. That means the Monday after Thanksgiving is the last day you should eat any leftovers, unless they’ve been in the freezer. For a comprehensive list of how long leftover food lasts, check out this chart from the USDA.
Understanding Expiration Dates
Dates on food packaging can be inconsistent and confusing to consumers, who must distinguish between “best by,” “use by” and “sell by” dates. Confusion about what these dates really mean leads many people to throw out perfectly good food on a regular basis.
Importantly, these dates are not related to food safety and there is no law or regulation that requires dates for safety purposes, with one significant exception: baby formula. Federal regulations require a “use by” date on baby formula for safety reasons. Never use baby formula past its “use by” date.
For everything besides baby formula, you have to use your judgement. A “best by” or “use by” date has nothing to do with food safety but is instead an indicator of taste and freshness. The product’s peak freshness and optimum flavor may begin to decline after the “use by/best by” date, but it is not necessarily spoiled.
For a non-perishable item, such as a box of crackers or bag of chips, the food may be stale after the date on the package, but it is not going to make you sick. Use your judgement when deciding whether or not you want to eat it. Similarly, canned goods aren’t spoiled after their “use by” date, but they may not be at optimum freshness. However, if a can is dented or bulging, that could indicate a problem and you should throw it away.
When a product has a “sell by” date, that is a message to the retailer to take it off the shelves after that date. The understanding is that a customer can purchase the product on the “sell by” date and it should still be good for several days afterwards. Milk should generally be good for five to seven days after the “sell by” date before turning sour. Always judge the food’s freshness by smell and appearance. Perishable food can grow mold or yeast as it spoils. If it smells or looks off, don’t take a chance – throw it away.
Shop, Cook & Eat Safe!
By observing best practices for keeping your food safe, you’ll be taking an important step to keeping you and your family healthy. That’s important year-round, but especially during the holiday season, when we’re more likely to have big meals and be serving lots of people. And by understanding how long your food is really good for, you’ll save more money and waste less food.
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