By Raymond King, Director of Environmental Health, North Georgia Health District, provided by the Fannin Emergency Management Agency.

A school kitchen received USDA frozen turkeys for a meal just before Thanksgiving. The turkeys were left out of refrigeration at room temperature to thaw overnight. The turkeys were cooked, but apparently did not reach a safe internal temperature of at least 165°F. There may also have been ‘cross-contamination’ between equipment used with raw turkeys and cooked turkeys. The result? Hundreds of children and school personnel sick with vomiting, fever, diarrhea and abdominal pain. Can you name the mistakes in this story which led to the illness outbreak?

Typical symptoms of foodborne illness are vomiting, diarrhea, and flu-like symptoms, which can start anywhere from hours to days after contaminated food or drinks are consumed. The symptoms usually are not long-lasting in healthy people—a few hours or a few days—and usually go away without medical treatment. But foodborne illness can be severe and even life-threatening to anyone, especially those most at risk such as infants and young children, pregnant women, older adults, people with HIV/AIDS, cancer or any condition or medication that weakens the immune system.

As you prepare your favorite holiday dishes this season, avoid causing foodborne illness by following these food safety tips from the Georgia Department of Public Health and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration:

1. Clean and Sanitize:
The first rule of safe food preparation in the home is to keep everything clean.

• Wash hands with warm water and soap for 20 seconds before and after handling any food.
• Wash food-contact surfaces (cutting boards, dishes, utensils, countertops) with hot, soapy water after preparing each food item and before going on to the next item. Sanitize food contact surfaces with a mild household bleach solution or other sanitizer between items.
• Rinse fruits and vegetables thoroughly under cool running water and use a produce brush to remove surface dirt.
• Do not rinse raw meat and poultry before cooking. Washing these foods is unnecessary and makes it more likely for bacteria to spread to areas around the sink and countertops.
• Sanitize cleaned surfaces such as cutting boards. Sanitizing means to kill at least 99% of bacteria and viruses on a surface. Make an easy sanitizing solution by adding a measured teaspoon of plain (unscented) household bleach to a gallon of water. Mix thoroughly. After washing and rinsing the surface, add the bleach sanitizing solution and allow it to remain on the surface for five minutes. This will kill remaining bacteria and viruses.

2. Separate Raw and Cooked Foods:
Don’t give bacteria the opportunity to spread from one food to another (cross-contamination).
• Keep raw eggs, meat, poultry, seafood, and their juices away from foods that won’t be cooked. Take this precaution while shopping in the store, when storing in the refrigerator at home, and while preparing meals.
• Consider using one cutting board only for foods that will be cooked (such as raw meat, poultry, and seafood) and another one for those that will not (such as raw fruits and vegetables).
• Keep fruits and vegetables that will be eaten raw separate from other foods such as raw meat, poultry or seafood—and from kitchen utensils used for those products.
• Do not put cooked meat or other food that is ready to eat on an unwashed plate that has held any raw eggs, meat, poultry, seafood, or their juices.

3. Cook Thoroughly:
Food is safely cooked when it reaches a high enough internal temperature to kill harmful bacteria, 165°F or more.
• Color is not a reliable indicator of doneness. Use a food thermometer to make sure meat, poultry, and fish are cooked to a safe internal temperature. To check a turkey for safety, insert a food thermometer into the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast. The turkey is safe when the temperature reaches 165ºF. If the turkey is stuffed, the temperature of the stuffing should be 165ºF. (Please read on for more pointers on stuffing.)
• Bring sauces, soups, and gravies to a rolling boil when reheating.
• Cook eggs until the yolk and white are firm. When making your own eggnog or other recipe calling for raw eggs, use pasteurized shell eggs, liquid or frozen pasteurized egg products, or powdered egg whites.
• Don’t eat uncooked cookie dough, which may contain raw eggs.
4. Chill:
Refrigerate foods quickly because harmful bacteria grow rapidly at room temperature.
• Refrigerate leftovers and takeout foods—and any type of food that should be refrigerated—within two hours. That includes pumpkin pie!
• Set your refrigerator at or below 40ºF and the freezer at 0ºF. Check both periodically with an appliance thermometer.
• Never defrost food at room temperature. Food can be defrosted safely in the refrigerator, under cold running water, or in the microwave. Food thawed in cold water or in the microwave should be cooked immediately.
• Allow the correct amount of time to properly thaw food. For example, a 20-pound turkey needs four to five days to thaw completely when thawed in the refrigerator.
• Don’t taste food that looks or smells questionable. Davidson says, “A good rule to follow is, when in doubt, throw it out.”
• Leftovers should be used within three to four days.

For more information on food safety for the holidays and beyond, log onto these websites:
Holiday Food Safety
Holiday Food Safety (video in English and Spanish)
Holiday Food Safety Success Kit
USDA: Seasonal Food Safety
CDC: Holiday Food Safety During Pregnancy

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