Medical corner: Food handling safety for the holidays

  • Published
  • 71st Medical Operations Squadron Public Health
American tradition calls for food, and lots of it, during the holiday season. The following are tips for safe food handling so your holiday will be filled with healthy good cheer. 

Wash hands with hot soapy water for at least 20 seconds before and after handling food and after using the restroom, changing diapers, coughing, sneezing, blowing your nose or handling pets. Thoroughly scrub hands, wrists, fingernails and between fingernails. Rinse and dry hands with paper towels or a clean cloth. 

Consider using paper towels to clean up kitchen surfaces and throw the germs away with the towels. If you use cloth towels, launder them often, using hot water. Do not dry your hands with a towel that was used to clean up raw meat, poultry or seafood juices. 

Wash cutting boards, dishes, utensils and countertops with hot-soapy water after preparing each food item and before you go on to the next food. You can also use one teaspoon of liquid chlorine bleach per quart of clean water to sanitize surfaces. The bleach solution needs to sit on the surface for about 10 minutes to be effective. 

Rinse raw produce under running water. Don't use soap, detergents or bleach solutions. For thick or rough-skinned vegetables and fruits, use a small vegetable brush to remove surface dirt. Try to cut away any damaged or bruised areas on produce. Bacteria can thrive in these places. 

Separate raw meat, poultry, and seafood from other foods in the refrigerator to prevent cross contamination. If possible, use one cutting board for raw meat products and another one for fresh fruits and vegetables. 

Always wash hands, cutting boards, dishes and utensils with hot soapy water after they come in contact with raw meat, poultry, seafood, eggs and unwashed fresh produce. 

Washing raw poultry, beef, pork, lamb, veal or seafood before cooking is not recommended. Although washing these raw food items may get rid of some of the pathogens, it also allows the pathogens to spread around the kitchen. Cooking these foods to a safe internal temperature destroys any bacteria that may be present. 

Place all cooked food on a clean plate. If you put cooked food on an unwashed plate that previously held raw meat, poultry, or seafood, bacteria from the raw food could contaminate the cooked food. 

To prevent juices from raw meat, poultry, or seafood from dripping onto other foods in your refrigerator, place these raw foods in sealed containers or plastic bags and on the lowest shelf.

Keep food in the refrigerator. At room temperature, pathogenic bacteria in food can double in number every 30 to 40 minutes. The more bacteria there are, the greater the chance you could become sick. 

Set your home refrigerator no higher than 40 degrees and the freezer unit at zero degrees. 

Store large amounts of leftovers in shallow containers for quick cooling in the refrigerator. 

Never thaw foods at room temperature. You can safely thaw food in the refrigerator to allow several days for larger meats. 

You can also thaw food outside the refrigerator by immersing it in cold water. Water temperature should be maintained at 70 degrees or below. Change the water every half hour to keep the water cold. 

You can thaw food in the microwave. If you do, be sure to cook the food immediately after it is thawed. 

At a minimum, turkeys should be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees for 15 seconds. Ensure temperatures are taken from multiple locations on the bird to include the legs, breast and thighs. 

For optimal safety, cook the stuffing outside the turkey in a casserole dish. However, if you place stuffing inside the turkey, do so just before cooking, and use a food thermometer. Make sure the center of the stuffing reaches a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees. 

Raw hams should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees and pre-cooked hams to 140 degrees. 

Foods should not be left out in the temperature-danger zone, 41 to 135 degrees, for more than four hours. If so, it should be discarded immediately. Temperature for hot-holding of food items should be maintained at 135 degrees or above. Temperatures for cold holding of food items should be maintained at 41 degrees or below. 

Leftovers should be reheated to 165 degrees and all sauces, soups and gravies should be brought to a boil.