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The Department of Public Health (DPH) reminds Connecticut residents that food safety is especially important as they prepare holiday meals. Many holiday dinners include meat and poultry, a possible source of foodborne disease if not handled and prepared properly.


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that each year roughly 1 in 6 Americans get sick each year from contaminated food.  Approximately 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die due to foodborne diseases across the country.


“Preparing and storing food safely can prevent foodborne illness from ruining their holiday gatherings and can even save a life,” said Tracey Weeks, DPH Food Protection Program Coordinator. “While most people who become ill due to food poisoning recover without any lasting effects from their illness, for some it can be devastating and even deadly.”


Holiday buffets, party trays or even a poorly stored turkey can be the culprit of disease. Improperly stored food items provide breeding grounds for bacteria, which cause illness that affects an average of 48 million people across the country each year.


Here are a few food safety tips to help keep you and your loved ones healthy during the holiday season:


Wash hands - Wash hands for 20 seconds with soap and water, and dry your hands with a paper towel following restroom use, before preparing foods, after handling raw meat and before eating. Clean hands will help prevent the spread of illness-causing bacteria.


Clean - Bacteria can spread and get onto cutting boards, knives and counter tops. Wash and sanitize food-contact surfaces often. Many home dishwashers now come with a sanitizing cycle option. If not, you can sanitize by immersing utensils, cutting boards, and other items that come in contact with food for at least one minute in a clean solution made of one teaspoon of household bleach per gallon of water. Wash fruits and vegetables with water before preparing.


Thaw properly - Proper methods for thawing a turkey include: thawing in a refrigerator with a temperature of 41º F or less (allow 3-4 days for thawing); placing under cool running water at a temperature of 75 ºF or less; or thawing in a microwave and cooking the turkey immediately.


Take temperatures - Cook your turkey at 325º F until its internal temperature reaches at least 165º F. Cooked, hot foods should be kept at 140º F or warmer. Be sure to use a food thermometer to check temperatures. When cooking a stuffed turkey, be sure that the turkey, as well as the stuffing inside of it, reaches at least 165º F. Even if the turkey itself reaches 165º F, the temperature safe enough to kill any bacteria that may be present, the stuffing inside may take longer to reach 165º F.


Stuffing - Prepare your stuffing and turkey just before cooking. Using a cold stuffing may make it more difficult to reach the safe temperature of 165º F. Stuff the turkey loosely and use ¾ of a cup of stuffing per pound of turkey. Use a moist stuffing rather than a dry stuffing because heat destroys bacteria better in a moist environment. For a safer approach, cook stuffing separately.


Keep it cold - Cold foods should be kept at 41º F or less. After the turkey is served, immediately slice and refrigerate on shallow platters. Store leftover food in shallow containers and refrigerate promptly. Use refrigerated turkey and stuffing within three to four days. Use gravy within one to two days. If freezing leftovers, use within two to six months for best quality.


Transport safely - Keep hot foods hot (140º F or above) and cold foods cold (41º F or less).


Reheat - Leftover turkey and stuffing should be stored separately in shallow dishes or platters. Rapidly reheat leftovers to a minimum internal temperature of 165º F.


Don’t cross contaminate - Put the turkey directly into the roasting pan as you remove it from the wrapper to avoid contaminating the sink and other surfaces with bacteria that are often present on poultry. Don’t touch other foods with hands or utensils that have been used on raw poultry without properly washing your hands first. Washing your hands, wearing disposable gloves, and changing them after handling raw foods is the safest way to prevent cross contamination.


Don’t cook if you’re ill - Don’t prepare foods if you are experiencing symptoms of vomiting or diarrhea or if you recently had such symptoms. Many foodborne illnesses are transmitted unknowingly by a food preparer who had these symptoms – even if they washed their hands! If you are ill, let someone else do the cooking and provide a safe and enjoyable dinner for your family and friends.


For more information and free literature about food safety, contact the Food Protection Program at (860) 509-7297.