Don't let poor food sanitation spoil your holidays
Just in time for the Thanksgiving holiday, I've had several wake-up calls about safe food handling practices (actually these were calls to my Cooperative Extension Service office where I was not sleeping). Within a period of a couple days, I received calls requesting information about two separate types of food-borne illness or food poisoning.
One was a fairly common culprit – salmonella from chicken. The other – a very rare case in Alaska though more common in the Lower 48 – toxoplasmosis, from moose steak. Both salmonella and toxoplasmosis can be avoided by using safe food handling techniques.
It is estimated that 1 in 6 Americans get sick every year from food poisoning – a whopping 48 million people. Many of these individuals are hospitalized and around 3,000 die from their illness. For others, the symptoms of their food poisoning cause lasting difficulties.
With salmonellosis the acute symptoms of extreme pain and gastrointestinal discomfort may be followed by painful and difficult-to-treat joint pain, eye irritation and painful urination from a syndrome called "reactive arthritis".
Though much less well known by the public, toxoplasmosis infections are even more common than salmonella infections. We usually associate this infection with cleaning cat boxes, but infections can also occur after eating undercooked meat– in the Alaska case last year, it was from moose steak. Acute symptoms of toxoplasmosis include fever, rash, muscle aches, headaches and enlarged lymph nodes. This parasite can cause miscarriages and brain and eye damage in infants of mothers who become infected during pregnancy.
Even with good farming, factory packaging or butchering practices, we should assume that all meats and poultry are contaminated with microbes that may cause illness. They should all be handled and cooked carefully. "Poultry" includes our frequently used holiday birds such turkeys, ducks, quail, game hens, peacocks and geese. "Meats" includes beef, veal, lamb, pork, moose, caribou, deer and elk.
Four key practices should always be followed to keep you and your loved-ones safe at the holidays and year round.
Clean. Wash hands and surfaces often and always before and after touching raw meat, fish and poultry and before touching anything else.
Chill. Keep a thermometer in your refrigerator to be sure of the temperature. It should be below 40°F for holding and defrosting. Refrigerate leftovers within two hours of serving.
Separate. Avoid contaminating other food by keeping poultry, eggs, seafood or meat separate from other food in your grocery bags, in the refrigerator and on work surfaces like cutting boards. Never put cooked products back onto a plate that held raw poultry, eggs, seafood or meat. Hold and defrost in the refrigerator on a tray to catch any drips from packages. Don't rinse poultry! This practice is no longer recommended because you may wind up contaminating your sink, your sponges, your counter tops and faucets with contaminated water droplets.
Cook. Use a thermometer to find out if your poultry, seafood and meat have reached safe internal temperatures. For roasts and large cuts of meat, you should insert the thermometer into the thickest part of the meat. For whole poultry, insert into the thickest part of the breast and between the thigh and wing. You may want to check the temperature in more than one place in large pieces of meat or poultry. For thin pieces of meat or poultry a quick read thermometer, with the temperature sensor low on the stem, will give you the most accurate reading. When using a quick read thermometer, always clean it thoroughly between uses so that you don't reintroduce microbes.
• 165° F - Minimum temperature for whole poultry (holiday turkeys, geese, ducks, chicken)
• 145° F - Minimum temperature for roasts or steaks of beef, lamb, veal and pork
• 160° F - Minimum temperature for whole game meats including caribou, deer or moose
Reheat any leftovers to 165° F and sauces, soups and gravies to boiling.
Poisoning is no joke
When I think about holiday cooking, a 1988 movie "Accidental Tourist" comes to mind. In the movie, a romantic attraction leads a man to eat an undercooked Thanksgiving turkey – it was hilarious in the movie. However, victims of food poisoning do not think that it is in any way hilarious. For happy and pleasurable fall hunting and holiday seasons, Alaskans should redouble efforts to use safe food handling practices.
For more information about safe food handling, call the UAF Cooperative Extension Service or visit the government website http://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety.
Leslie Shallcross is a registered dietitian and associate professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service in Anchorage. Call her at 786-6313.