CDC: 1 in 6 Sickened from Foodborne Illnesses Each Year

November 25, 2013

Originally published Nov. 19, 2012

At many holiday gatherings, cooking the meal is as big a part of the festivities as eating it.  But the most important ingredient is kitchen safety.

Food poisoning is a sure way to spoil a holiday, and the condition can be especially dangerous for children, older adults and pregnant women. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that about one in six Americans get sick from foodborne illnesses each year, mostly due to food contaminated with bacteria. 

"Safe food handling/preparation and frequent hand-washing play a critical role in avoiding illness during your holiday festivities," said Cameron Wiggins, food service program director for the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH).

Everything from kitchen surfaces to utensils to the cooks' hands should be thoroughly cleaned before and after cooking a holiday feast. Wash hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds, especially after handling the turkey or other raw meat. Also, be sure to keep raw meat and eggs completely separate from ready-to-eat foods.

"It's also a good idea to avoid handling and preparing foods if you are sick," said Tim Allee, environmental health director for the Northwest District.

If you plan to cook a frozen turkey, you can safely thaw it in the refrigerator or under cold water; thawing it at room temperature helps bacteria grow. Also, use a food thermometer. Your food might look done, but the only reliable way to tell if food is thoroughly cooked is by taking the internal temperature.

For a turkey, insert the thermometer into the thickest parts of the thigh, wing, breast and stuffing; the turkey is safe to eat when the temperature reaches 165 degrees. Don't forget to wash the thermometer before you use it on other foods.

It's also important to remember that many frozen and ready-to-cook foods are made with raw eggs, which can carry harmful bacteria before they are cooked. Avoid the temptation to steal a nibble of cookie dough or unbaked pie crust.

Allee said food temperatures should be kept below 41 degrees or above 135 degrees as much as possible to keep bacteria from growing. Keep leftover food safe to eat by refrigerating it within two hours after it's been cooked -- even the pumpkin pie. Leftovers should be eaten within three or four days, but if food looks or smells questionable, throw it out.

Fires can wreak just as much havoc as foodborne illnesses. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), about 4,300 cooking fires occur each year on Thanksgiving. To protect your home and loved ones, keep these safety tips in mind:

  • Keep an eye on cooking food. Most fires occur when food is left unattended.
  • Keep a fire extinguisher in the kitchen, and do not disable smoke alarms, even if they are triggered easily.

Deep fried turkeys are popular, but turkey fryers can also be dangerous. The National Fire Protection Agency reports that turkey deep fryers cause $15 million of property damage each year, as well as severe burns and other injuries. If you plan to use one, carefully read the instruction manual and take every safety precaution.

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