Food Safety Tips to Keep You Healthy Over the Holidays

The CDC estimates that each year roughly one out of six Americans (or 48 million people) get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from food borne diseases. In 2011, the CDC has engaged with state and local public health partners in the investigation of 165 outbreaks and clusters of illness.

Most food borne outbreaks are local and many result from food being contaminated when it is being prepared or served by unwashed or improperly washed hands. Scientific evidence shows that preventing illness begins with the basics. Stay safe this holiday season by following these back to basics tips.

The CDC breaks the basics down into four main groups: Clean, Separate, Cook and Chill. We're going to break it down for you.

CDC steps

Clean

Why it Matters

Illness-causing bacteria can survive all over your kitchen. This includes your hands, cooking utensils, and cutting boards.
It's important to wash everything the right way or you could spread bacteria to your food, and your family. Yuck!

Here's How and When to Do It

Wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap and running warm or cool water. Rubs your hands together to lather up. Scrub the backs of your hands, in-between your fingers, and under your nails! Bacteria is sneaky! If you don't feel like counting to twenty, you can always hum "Happy Birthday" from start to finish, twice. Rinse your hands well and try using a clean towel or air dry.

When to Wash: This list might seem elementary, but you'd be surprised! You and your family should wash before eating food; before, during and after preparing food; treating a cut or wound; after caring for someone sick; after handling uncooked eggs, raw meat, poultry, seafood or their juices; after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing; after touching an animal or their waste; after touching garbage; and of course, after using the toilet.

Wash surfaces and utensils after each use. You can use paper towels or clean cloths to wipe up kitchen surfaces or spills. You'll want to wash your cutting boards, dishes, utensils, and counter tops with hot, soapy water after preparing each food item and before you go on to the next item. This might seem like overkill, but better safe than sorry! When you're all done cooking, as an extra precaution, you can create a solution of 1 tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach in 1 gallon of water to sanitize washed surfaces and utensils. There are greener solutions, too that you can use if you have allergies to bleach, or simply don't like bleach.

Wash your fruits and veggies but don't wash meat, poultry, or eggs! Even if you peel fruits and veggies you should always wash them because bacteria (and chemicals) can spread from the outside to the inside as you cut or peel them. Double yuck!

Why aren't you supposed to wash meat, poultry, and eggs? Washing raw meat and poultry helps bacteria spread, because their juices could splash onto and contaminate your sink and countertops. Commercial eggs are washed before they are sold. Any extra handling of the eggs, such as washing, could actually increase the risk of cross-contamination, especially if the shell becomes cracked.

Keep it Separated

Why it Matters

Even if you've washed your hands, and cleaned your surfaces like we just suggested, unless you keep ready-to-eat foods separate from raw foods such as meat, poultry, seafood and eggs, you can still spread those nasty illness-causing bacteria. They are more than happy to propagate right there on your cutting board.

Here's How and When to Do It

Use separate cutting boards and plates for produce and for meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs. Here is how you stop cross-contamination: 1) Use one cutting board for fresh produce and another for raw meat, poultry or seafood; 2) You can consider using specially designated plates and utensils for cooked and raw foods; 3) Always thoroughly wash your plates, utensils and cutting boards as we suggested above; 4) If your cutting board is wearing out, or has developed hard-to-clean grooves, it might be time to invest in a new one.

Keep your raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs products separate from all other foods when you're grocery shopping. It's always a good idea to try to keep your raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs from the other food items in your shopping cart. This way, you don't risk bacteria frolicking at your expense. When you checkout, have the staff put the raw items in your designated bags or plastic bags. This will keep any chance of their juices from dripping onto your other food items. Triple yuck!

Separate your meat, poultry, seafood and eggs from your other food in fridge. They might shout out they are lonely, but don't listen. It's just that sneaky bacteria at it again. Just like you did at the grocery, store your raw products in special containers or sealed plastic bags to stop their juices from dripping or leaking on your other food items. If you're not going to use the raw items right away, freeze them instead. As for eggs, you really want to keep and store them in their original packaging, and in the main part of your frig - not in the door where the temperature might vary too much.

Cook That Food and Keep it Hot!

Why it Matters

Here's a scary fact for you: bacteria that cause food poisoning multiply quickest in the "danger zone" between 40˚ and 140˚ Fahrenheit. There are a lot of folks (and it could be you!) that think they can tell when their food is "done" by checking its color and texture. You want to be 100% sure it's safe? Follow these tips:

Here's How and When to Do It

Arm yourself with a food thermometer. Cooked food is safe only after it's been heated to a high enough temperature to kill harmful bacteria. Color and texture alone will not tell you if your food is done. Don't have one? Buy one. When you think your food is done, stick the thermometer in the thickest part of the food, (try not to touch bone, fat, or gristle). Wait the amount of time recommended for your type of thermometer. Some foods need a few minutes to "rest" after cooking. This helps to make sure the icky, sneaky germs are killed. Clean your food thermometer with hot, soapy water after each use.

Keep your delicious and yummy food hot after cooking (at 140˚F or above to be safe). It is possible for bacteria to grow as your food cools down. The bacteria are so sneaky - they take advantage of the drop in temperature and start to thrive. This is where food poisoning comes into play. You can keep your food above or at the safe temperature of 140˚F by using a heat source like a chafing dish, warming tray, or slow cooker. There are lots of solutions to beat bacteria at it's devious game.

Microwave your food thoroughly (to 165˚F). You want to know for certain that you've killed those bacterial invaders? You are going to have to microwave your raw foods until they reach a temperature of 165˚ or higher. When you microwave your food products, you'll want to stir your food in the middle of heating. If the instructions say, "Let stand for x minutes after cooking," don't ignore the standing time. When you let microwaved food sit for a few minutes, it actually helps your food cook more by allowing the colder areas of food absorb the heat from the hotter areas. That extra minute or two could mean the difference between a yummy meal and having a bellyache or worse. For those who want to, you could check the food with a food thermometer to make sure it is 165˚F or above.

Chill

Why it Matters

Are you sick of bacteria yet? Here's another fact that will gross you out. Did you know that illness-causing bacteria can grow in and on your perishable food items within two hours unless you refrigerate them? Here is another piece of trivia to keep in mind. If the temperature is 90˚F or higher during the summer, cut that time down to one hour! Quadruple yuck for those counting!

The solution is simple. By refrigerating foods promptly and properly, you can help keep your family safe from food poisoning at home.

Here's How and When to Do It

Refrigerate your perishable foods within two hours. Cold temperatures slow the growth of bacteria. Make sure your fridge and freezer are cooled to the right temperature. Your fridge should be between 40˚F and 32˚F, and your freezer should be 0˚F or below. Pack your refrigerator carefully. To chill your food items properly, the cold air needs to be allowed to circulate freely in your fridge. Don't over-stuff your fridge if you can help it. Store your leftovers within two hours, too. There are myths about letting it cool first (remember the bacterial invaders thrive as food cools...).

Never thaw or marinate foods on the counter. Lots of folks are surprised and even miffed at this tip. But since bacteria can multiply rapidly at room temperature, thawing or marinating foods on the counter is one of the riskiest things you can do when preparing food for your family. Who knew?

Okay, so what do you do instead? Try these handy tips:

1) Thaw in the refrigerator. This is the safest way to thaw meat, poultry, and seafood. Take the food out of the freezer and place it on a plate or pan that can catch any juices that may leak. Depending on how frozen the item is, it should be ready to use the next day.

2) Thaw in cold water. For faster thawing, you can put the frozen package in a watertight plastic bag and submerge it in cold water. Change the water every 30 minutes. It's important to note, that if you thaw using this method, cook the food immediately.

3) Thaw in the microwave. Faster thawing can also be accomplished in the microwave. Simply follow instructions in your owner’s manual for thawing. As with thawing in cold water, food thawed in the microwave should be cooked immediately.

4) Cook without thawing. If you don’t have enough time to thaw food, just remember, it is safe to cook foods from a frozen state—but your cooking time will be approximately 50% longer than fully thawed meat or poultry.

5) To marinate food safely, always marinate it in the refrigerator.

Know when to throw food out. This idea should be a no-brainer. If it stinks, it's not good. Right? Well, not exactly. You can't always tell the item is "past due" just by looking or smelling it. You won't know for certain if that devious and sneaky bacteria has started growing in your leftovers or refrigerated foods or not. Throw food out before harmful bacteria grow and hurt you or your family. It might seem wasteful - but what is worse, you and your family in the hospital or a few dollars end up in the trash? We'd go with keeping you safe!

With the new mantra of "Clean, Separate, Cook and Chill," you can't go wrong. What are some of your tips for keeping safe during the holidays? Share them with us!

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