Tuesday, November 20, 2001

Millions of Americans this Thanksgiving will retire to their sofas after sating themselves on a traditional turkey dinner.
A few will experience more than the standard intestinal distress brought on by one too many dumplings. They may suffer from a food-borne illness, a preventable condition typically the result of slipshod culinary preparations.
Food-borne illnesses stem from bacteria lurking in improperly prepared foods. The bacteria can cause flulike symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, fever and diarrhea, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Such bacteria, called pathogens, can be avoided with careful cooking techniques and a dollop of common sense.
Dr. Andrew Sumner, director of the emergency department at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Northwest, says good food-safety protocols can boil down to simple soap and hot water.
“They need to be washing their hands frequently. People [can] carry staph infection in their nose,” Dr. Sumner says of the bacteria known as Staphylococcus aureus. “They may contaminate the food with staph, which then grows a toxin. That’s the classic case of food poisoning.”
Turkey is a leading incubator of food-borne illness on the holiday menu, able to pass on four bacteria-born illnesses Salmonella enteriditis, Campylobacter jejuni, Staphylococcus aureus and Listeria monocytogenes if improperly cooked. Other items also can be problematic, such as dishes prepared with raw eggs. They can carry Salmonella enteriditis, which causes severe diarrhea and possibly blood in a person’s stool.
Potato salad drenched in mayonnaise should send up red flags to diners.
“How well staph would grow depends on the temperature and what it’s growing on,” he says. “On warm mayonnaise, it grows like crazy.”
Symptoms of a Staphylococcus aureus infection are vomiting and diarrhea.
Other meats besides turkey should be of concern.
Improperly cooked chicken can harbor campylobacter, which causes diarrhea, cramping, abdominal pain and fever within two to five days of exposure. The sickness typically runs its course in a week.
Those unlucky enough to contract a food-borne illness this week will suffer, but in most cases, it isn’t a life-threatening situation, he says.
The illness can be more serious, though, for the very young and old and those with weakened immune systems.

Bessie Berry, manager of the USDA’s meat and poultry hot line, says consumers most commonly ask how long a frozen turkey will keep.
Any turkey frozen consistently for a year or less should be just as delicious as if it were frozen last week, Ms. Berry says. After a year, the turkey’s moisture and flavor may begin to suffer.
“The safest place to thaw is in the refrigerator,” she says.
Those who wake up Thanksgiving morning having forgotten to transfer their frozen turkeys to the refrigerator, she says, can put the turkey in the oven at 325 degrees to start the process. When it is thawed enough to remove the giblets, then the bird can be cooked until it is done. The entire process may take up to 50 percent longer than usual, but the bird will be safe to eat.
Turkey chefs shouldn’t use the meat’s coloring to determine when it is done, says Ms. Berry, whose hot line will field up to 600 calls a day the week before Thanksgiving.
“The best indicator of doneness is the use of a thermometer,” she says.
The thermometer should read 180 degrees when placed in a turkey’s thigh, a dark-meat area that takes the longest to cook.
“The assumption is that bacteria are present on raw product,” she says.
Christie Wayment, a registered dietitian with George Washington University Lipid Research Clinic, says people may diligently follow the proper procedures while preparing a meal but then let their guard down.
“They let the food sit out on the countertop between 40 and 140 degrees,” Mrs. Wayment says. After two hours like that, she says, “the bacteria are multiplying in large numbers.”
She recommends storing food in shallow containers. “People tend to load up a big bowl and stick it in the fridge,” she says. It may take a while for food in the large bowl to chill completely, during which time bacteria can grow.
She also suggests using separate cutting boards when preparing foods, or washing the cutting board thoroughly with soap and hot water before switching from one item to another.

Dr. Jill Hollingsworth, vice president of food-safety programs for the Food Marketing Institute, says the simplest advice is to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold.
“As soon as the meal is over, you rapidly put things back in the refrigerator,” Dr. Hollingsworth says.
Turkeys can be thawed outside the refrigerator if placed in cold water, which should be replaced every 30 minutes.
“You don’t want to thaw it in warm water; you’re warming up the surface of the bird, [and] that’s the temp at which the bacteria like to grow,” she says.
The USDA suggests not cooking a turkey at less than 325 degrees, preparing stuffing outside of the bird and using a meat thermometer to supplement any “pop-up” thermometer inserted into the turkey.
The D.C.-based FMI also suggests defrosting items in the microwave only if they will be cooked immediately afterward. Leftovers that may leak should be stored on the refrigerator’s lowest shelves to prevent them from spoiling other foods.
Leftover food should not stay out of the refrigerator for more than two hours, or less time in warmer weather, according to the American Dietetic Association.
The association also says dishes and containers should be dried with a clean cloth or paper towels. Foul-smelling dish towels or sponges likely are infected with bacteria and should be cleaned or discarded.
Dr. Sumner and his staff will medicate patients to prevent them from vomiting and will give them intravenous fluids to stave off dehydration.
“When I get sick, I go for Gatorade,” Dr. Sumner says. “You want something bland and smooth and soothing, any sport drinks.”
His prescription for someone whose holiday is interrupted by nasty bacteria is the “BRAT” diet banana, rice, apple sauce and toast. Then they can graduate to chicken noodle soup, he says.
People with questions about food safety may call the USDA’s Meat and Poultry Hotline at 202/720-3333 or 800/535-4555.

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