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Spread joy, not germs in holiday cooking

A few precautions can help keep germs away from holiday fun.

Holiday foods can create lasting memories … and not the good kind, if foodborne illnesses caused by improper preparation, temperature or storage make your family or guests sick. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], in cooperation with food safety experts, recently shared tips in an online forum about how to make holiday meals and parties safe, healthy and memorable in a strictly positive way.

The CDC cited four basic steps that should be followed in the home – clean, separate, cook and chill – to protect your loved ones and holiday guests from foodborne illness:

Clean: Germs that cause food poisoning can survive in many places and spread quickly around your kitchen, so wash both your hands and surfaces often. Wash hands for 20 seconds with soap and water before, during and after preparing food, as well as before eating. Wash utensils, cutting boards and countertops with hot, soapy water. Rinse fresh fruits and vegetables under running water before eating, peeling or slicing them.

Separate: Cross-contamination between raw meat, poultry, seafood or eggs and other food types is a major cause of food poisoning. Use separate cutting boards and plates for these four foods, and separate them from all other foods in the refrigerator as well. When grocery shopping, keep raw meat, poultry, seafood and their juices away from other foods in the cart, and make sure they are bagged separately.

Cook: You can’t tell if food is safely cooked just by checking its color and texture; cooking to an internal temperature high enough to kill germs is the only surefire way to prevent illness. And the only way to tell if a dish has reached the proper temperature is to use a food thermometer, inserted into the center of its thickest portion. General guidelines for safe internal temperatures are:

• 145°F for whole cuts of beef, pork, veal and lamb [allow the meat to rest for 3 minutes after removing from the oven before carving or eating]

• 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

Chill: Bacteria can multiply rapidly in foods left at room temperature, or in the “danger zone” between 40°F and 140°F. Refrigerate all perishable food within two hours, and keep the refrigerator’s temperature below 40°F. To thaw frozen foods safely, either allow them to thaw overnight in the refrigerator, run under cold water until thawed or use the microwave. Never thaw foods on the counter, because bacteria can multiply quickly in the parts of the food that reach room temperature first. Finally, know when to throw food out; guidelines for safe time limits for refrigerating holiday leftovers can be found online at foodsafety.gov/keep/charts/storagetimes.html.

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