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Food Safety 101 for Thanksgiving

The CDC breaks down their simplest advice into four main steps: cleaning, separating meat from other foods, appropriate temperatures for cooking, and proper cold storage.

Even when you know the most important recommendations for food safety, reminders can be helpful, especially if you’re teaching younger kids to help you while you prepare for the big meal. Or, if you’re relatively new to cooking in general, it’s a good review of what you learned in school anyway. So here’s an overview of the most important tips to reduce the likelihood of foodborne illness.

The 4 Steps: Clean, Separate, Cook, Chill

The CDC breaks down their simplest advice into four main steps: cleaning, separating meat from other foods, appropriate temperatures for cooking, and proper cold storage.

Cleaning is second nature to healthcare professionals, who wash their hands with soap and water for 20 seconds at a time dozens of times a day. But cleaning also means washing utensils, cutting boards, and countertops with hot, soapy water and rinsing all fruits and vegetables under running water before prepping them, even before peeling them. (Germs can travel from the peel to the inside when cutting or peeling them otherwise.)

You Gotta Keep ‘Em Separated

Separating raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs from ready-to-eat foods, including fruits and vegetables, is essential to reduce the likelihood that germs in the raw foods contaminate ready-to-eat foods. That starts from the moment you purchase the food. Fruits, vegetables, and ready-to-eat foods should be in separate bags from meat, poultry, and seafood, which should have their own bags. When you store food in the fridge, fruits and vegetables should go on the higher shelves, and meat should be kept on lower shelves and in bags or containers that prevent the juices from escaping and contaminating other food.

When it comes time to thaw any frozen foods or marinate foods, never leave food on the counter to thaw or marinate. As each part of the food reaches room temperature, the bacteria have a heyday multiplying before you’ve even begun to prepare it. Instead, thaw foods in the refrigerator, cold water, or the microwave. Also, don’t rinse raw meat, poultry, or eggs before prepping them. Doing so can spread germs if juices from them splash onto countertops. Once you begin prepping, use separate cutting boards, plates, and knives for raw animal products than those you use for fruits, vegetables, and grains.

The Heat Is On

One of the most common causes of food poisoning is food not being cooked to the appropriate temperature. You don’t want to dry out or burn the food, but animal products must be cooked to a high enough temperature to kill pathogenic bacteria. The only way to be sure the internal temperature is high enough is to use a food thermometer—simply relying on appearance or cooking time isn’t enough.

The CDC provides a detailed chart of the internal temperature needed for various foods, including leftovers, but here are some of the most common ones you need to know.

  • Poultry, including turkey and chicken: 165ºF.
  • Ground meats, such as pork and beef: 160ºF.
  • Red meat whole cuts, including beef, lamb, pork, veal, and raw ham: 145ºF.
  • Fish with fins: 145°F or cook until flesh is no longer transparent.
  • Leftovers and casseroles: 165°F.

Ice, Ice, Baby

Proper storage means putting away leftovers before bacteria can begin multiplying. That means not leaving out perishable food longer than two hours at temperatures between 40º to 90ºF or longer than one hour at temperatures above 90ºF. Also, make sure your fridge temperature is set at 40ºF or below. Finally, when putting away warm foods, separate them into multiple smaller containers instead of one large container so that they chill faster.

The Usual Suspects

Any food can carry bacteria or other germs that can sicken people, but some are worse offenders than others. So here are the foods to be extra careful about:

  • Turkey, Chicken, Beef, and Pork: Undercooked meat can contain Campylobacter, Salmonella, Clostridium perfringens, E. coli, Yersinia, and other bugs just itching to wreak havoc on your insides. Following the guidelines above can thwart that.
  • Fruits and Vegetables: The most common bacteria living on the outside of fruits and vegetables are Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria. Cooking is the safest way to consume these foods, but if you are eating them raw, rinse them thoroughly first.
  • Sprouts: Though sprouts are a vegetable, they deserve special mention because they’re particularly prone to carrying Salmonella, E. coli, or Listeria when raw. Cooking alfalfa, beans, and other sprouts reduces the likelihood of food poisoning.
  • Raw Batters: Whether it’s cake batter, cookie dough, or some other scrumptious dessert heading to the oven, there’s a good chance it can make you sick if you partake before you cook. Eggs can contain Salmonella, even if they seem clean and uncracked, but raw flour is an even greater danger. This is because flour doesn’t undergo treatment to kill germs which can contaminate the grain in the fields and at any other stage during processing.
  • Raw Soft Cheese, Raw Milk, and Raw Milk Products: The safest way to consume dairy products is to ensure they have been pasteurized. Most soft cheeses sold in the US are already pasteurized, including Brie, camembert, queso fresco, cotija, and other popular soft cheeses. However, some imported cheeses may not be pasteurized, so it’s a good idea to make sure you check the labels to make sure. Unpasteurized dairy products can contain Campylobacter, Cryptosporidium, E. coli, Listeria, and Salmonella.
  • Oysters and Raw Seafood: Though it’s unlikely that raw oysters are on your Thanksgiving menu, it never hurts to have the reminder of their risks. Raw shellfish can contain deadly bacteria or viruses, and oysters from contaminated waters may carry norovirus.

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