Planning Holiday Get-togethers? Time To Brush Up On Food Safety

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Health

Chicken and turkey should be cooked to an internal temperature of 180 degrees. JAN VASEK PHOTO

Perhaps you're in charge of preparing a church supper, a potluck dinner or your family’s Thanksgiving feast. But before you show off your culinary talents, consider taking some time to review some basic safety techniques for preparing and handling food.

A poorly prepared holiday meal can have consequences that are more severe than dry turkey or a pie crust that isn’t flaky. Millions of cases of foodborne illness are reported each year, and most of those cases are preventable, according to the U.S.D.A.

“Salmonella is always the big one,” Chatham Health Agent Judith Giorgio said. While bacteria is present everywhere, only certain types cause illness, and the key is to keep these pathogens from entering or remaining in food. Foodborne illnesses can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and other flu-like symptoms, which are unpleasant for healthy people but potentially serious for those with compromised immune systems, the very young and very old, or pregnant women.

The USDA’s public information campaign about food safety encourages people to Fight Bac(teria) using a four strategies. The first is to keep hands and surfaces clean when food is being handled. People often rinse off their turkeys before roasting them at Thanksgiving, which is a bad idea, Giorgio said.

“When you’re washing it, you have the chance of spreading the bacteria around the kitchen,” she said. Frequently washing utensils, hands, and the general area with hot, soapy water is a good practice, she said.

The second approach for fighting bacteria is to separate food items when they are being prepared to prevent cross-contamination. “You definitely should try to keep your vegetables on a separate cutting board from the turkey and your meat, or else you really need to clean and sanitize in between,” Giorgio said.

The third strategy is cooking to the proper temperature to kill any pathogens that remain on the food. That means having a food thermometer close at hand.

“It’s really an easy way to tell if something’s done,” she said. The USDA recommends measuring the internal temperatures with either an analog or digital thermometer, placed deep in the thickest part of the food. Safe temperatures range from 145 for medium rare beef, veal or lamb to 180 for poultry. A more detailed list of safe cooking temperatures for foods is available at

If you’re in charge of food for a group of people, check food temperatures often and make sure that the heat source on chafing dishes remains working properly.

“It’s important that your hot holding temps are up to where they should be,” Giorgio said.

The final way to fight bacteria is to refrigerate leftovers right away. One rule of thumb is known as the Rule of Fours: if food is between 40 degrees and 140 degrees for more than four hours, forget it.

“Don’t let the gravy and the turkey sit out afterwards for more than two hours,” Giorgio said. Putting leftovers away promptly makes it less likely that pathogens will be able to survive. “You don’t want to allow any bacterial growth time,” she said.

Food safety might not top your list of holiday chores, but it’s worth considering.

“It’s a good topic for this time of year. when people are serving groups or family members,” Giorgio said. The USDA even staffs a hotline to answer questions about cooking meat and poultry; it’s 800-535-4555. “I think a lot of people call with questions,” she said.