- The Washington Times - Monday, December 27, 2004

When serving food to family and friends during New Year’s celebrations, it’s important to pay special attention to how the feast is handled, says Shelley Feist, executive director at Partnership for Food Safety Education in Northwest.

The nonprofit organization is the creator and steward of the Fight BAC! campaign, a food safety education program since 1987.

“An estimated 5,000 people in the United States die from food-borne illness each year,” Ms. Feist says. “The consumer is the last line of defense to ensure safe food.”

There are about 70 million cases of food-borne illness in the United States each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Simple tips, including avoiding “double dipping” of vegetables and chips in dips and spreads, can prevent the spread of sickness at parties this holiday season.

Most people expect that restaurant workers employ food safety precautions, but sometimes they forget to carry out the same measures in their homes, says Mike Milliorn, president and founder of Daydots Food Safety Solutions in Fort Worth, Texas.

“Our mothers taught us to wash our hands, but I’m afraid it doesn’t go much further than that,” Mr. Milliorn says. “You can handle food like a pro, if you’re informed correctly.”

Many people may feel sick and never know why, Mr. Milliorn says. While symptoms such as diarrhea or stomach cramps have many causes, they are common signs of food-borne illness.

“Ice abuse” is a frequent cause of sickness, he says. In many instances, ice is the “forgotten food.” If people put their dirty hands into the ice bowl, guests could become ill when the same ice is used in drinks.

A metal scoop is the best option for serving ice. A glass spoon might chip and the pieces fall into the ice.

Also, even though food may be on ice, that doesn’t guarantee the item will be preserved.

“The common misconception is that the freezing temperature kills the germs,” Mr. Milliorn says. “That’s not true. You can’t kill germs with cold, only with heat.”

The basic slogan hosts should remember is “check, clean, separate, cook, chill and throw away,” Ms. Feist says. For instance, when buying food in the grocery store, shoppers should check the produce, passing over bruised or damaged fruits and vegetables.

Consumers also should not buy fresh-cut produce that has not been refrigerated. After bringing the food home, shoppers should clean their hands and kitchen surfaces before preparing the produce. Then, they should rinse fresh fruits and vegetables with water, even those with skins and rinds that are not eaten, Ms. Feist says.

When working in the kitchen, cooks should make sure to separate the fruits and vegetables from the meats. When fruits and vegetables come in contact with raw meat, the juice from the meat can contaminate the foods.

“You shouldn’t use any plate or platter that held raw meat or poultry to serve any cooked foods,” Ms. Feist says. “Clean your utensils, plates and platters carefully.”

After the food is prepared, it shouldn’t sit outside the refrigerator for more than two hours, says Catherine Tallmadge, a registered dietitian with a private practice in Northwest. She also is a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, based in Chicago.

Fresh food should be brought out every hour during a party. After the event, any questionable leftovers should be discarded. Guests who want to take food home with them should use a cooler.

“Definitely don’t bring it to your hotel room and have it for the next meal without refrigerating it,” she says. “Store things in serving-size containers so you’re not reheating the whole batch over and over.”

After the party, the host could store additional food that hasn’t been sitting out for more than two hours. The refrigerator should be at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below, Ms. Feist says. An appliance thermometer can be used to make sure the refrigerator is at the proper temperature.

Meat should be chilled immediately after purchasing it, says Diane Van, acting manager for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Meat and Poultry hot line in Beltsville. The phone number for the service is 1-888-MPHOTLINE, with staff available from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays. At other times, a recorded message answers frequently asked questions.

If the meat will be cooked within a few hours, it can be placed in the refrigerator, Mrs. Van says. If it will be longer before the meat is eaten, it should be frozen and defrosted in the refrigerator or microwave and cooked immediately. It also can be defrosted in cold water that is changed every 30 minutes. Allowing food to defrost on the counter is an invitation for trouble.

When preparing meat, it’s important to use a food thermometer, Mrs. Van says. Various types of meat need to be cooked to specific internal temperatures, she says. For instance, beef, roast or steak should be cooked to 145 degrees Fahrenheit, while pork and ground beef should be prepared to 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Turkey and chicken thighs should be heated to 180 degrees Fahrenheit and breasts to 170 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Not only will you be sure that the meat is safe, but it will be juicy,” Mrs. Van says. “You’ll know you’re not overcooking it.”

Microwaves are not a good primary cooking system, especially for meat, says Dr. Cynthia Sears, professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in the division of infectious diseases and gastroneurology. Since microwaves heat unevenly, they should only be used to reheat something that has already been cooked.

Along with meats, eggs should be cooked well, Dr. Sears says. Any dish with eggs should be cooked to 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Also, people should refrain from eating raw cookie batter — salmonella-infected eggs could cause illness.

Eggnog also presents this potential problem when made with raw eggs, she says. Pasteurized eggnog sold in the supermarket dairy case is the best alternative.

People also can become sick when eggnog, even made from cooked eggs, sits at room temperature for many hours.

“It’s extremely important to be educated about what’s safe and what’s not safe,” Dr. Sears says. “The medical establishment doesn’t do as good as job as we could do, in terms of educating patients and making sure people’s knowledge is at the level it should be.”

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