By Eileen Ackerman
RD, Clinical Dietitian, Scripps Memorial Hospital Encinitas
The holiday season is in full swing with company parties, ornament exchanges and work and social get-togethers that feature all kinds of delectable tastes and treats. Many of us focus our efforts on fighting the Seasonal Seven — the average weight gain between Thanksgiving and the New Year — but we should be equally aware of food borne illness and fight the battle of the bacteria. While every season should be a reason to take food safety seriously, the winter holidays offer a natural opportunity to raise awareness about how to properly prepare and consume food this season to steer clear of bacteria that can make us sick!
Everyone is at risk for developing food borne illness from foods like undercooked eggs and meat. However, older adults, very young children, people with a compromised immune system and pregnant women in particular, are at higher risk, and need to be extra careful with the food they prepare and consume.
Food borne illness can take shape in many ways. Some people may have an upset stomach and diarrhea, while some may have a headache and fatigue. Sometimes it’s not always easy to tell the difference between food borne illness and influenza, especially since both show similar symptoms.
Influenza, commonly called “the flu,” is caused by a virus that infects the respiratory tract. Food borne disease, referred to as food poisoning, is carried or transmitted to humans by food containing harmful substances, which affects millions of people each year.
Safety starts at the grocery store
Food safety begins with your selection of food in the grocery store. The most important thing to do is check labels and expiration dates. An “expiration” date means that you shouldn’t consume a product after this date, which also includes use-by or sell-by dates.
When shopping for meat, poultry and seafood, choose them last during your shopping trip so that they are refrigerated the longest before making it home to your own refrigerator. Wrap each package of meat in a tightly sealed plastic bag to prevent dripping and place meat at the bottom of your shopping cart.
If you purchase food from the deli or salad bar, avoid foods containing any raw or undercooked meat, seafood or egg products, Caesar salad dressing, sushi, ceviche, etc.
Preparation is key
The most important thing you can do to eliminate food borne illness is to wash your hands thoroughly before and after meal preparation. Many cases of food poisoning take place in the home and can be traced to improper handling of food. In addition, proper hand hygiene is important in the spread of the common cold and flu.
Keep raw meats and ready-to-eat foods separate. Prevent cross-contamination by using two cutting boards: one solely for raw meat, poultry and seafood; the other for ready-to-eat foods like breads and vegetables.
Cooking to a proper temperature is imperative in order to destroy harmful bacteria. Your best bet is to use a meat thermometer. Knowing a food’s temperature is the only reliable way to ensure safety and determine when food is cooked. Reheating hot dogs, luncheon meats (cold cuts), fermented and dry sausage, and other deli-style meat and poultry products until steaming hot will also help to reduce bacteria. Although they are pre-cooked, they can become contaminated with harmful organisms after they have been processed and packaged.
How you store foods is just as important as buying and preparing them. Prompt refrigeration below 40 degrees Fahrenheit is necessary in order to slow the growth of bacteria and prevent food borne illness. Store leftovers in shallow covered containers (two inches deep or less) and consume them within a maximum of three to four days.
A few more dos and don’ts
—Thaw meats on the counter
— Marinate at room temperature
— Use the same plate to bring raw meats to the grill and cooked meats from the grill
— Stir and taste with the same spoon
— Use the same knife on produce and raw meats
— Undercook high-risk foods like eggs, meat, poultry and fish.
— Promptly refrigerate leftovers
— Clean cutting boards between uses (and use separate cutting boards for meat and other foods)
— Refrigerate groceries right away
— Cook all foods to proper temperatures (use a meat thermometer).
For more information on how to keep your home safe from food-borne illness, visit homefoodsafety.org.
By Eileen Ackerman