Food Safety 101: Tips to Proper Food Preparation and Handling for the Holidays

December 8, 2014

The holiday season wouldn’t be the same if it weren’t for the celebrations and meals we share with friends and family.  Food is often the centerpiece of our life events, and keeping everyone healthy and safe during these gatherings should always be a priority.

Although cooking is a passion for many, the safety protocols associated with meal preparation are often overlooked or misunderstood.

It is estimated that 48 million people get sick from foodborne illnesses each year, as documented by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  Furthermore, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die from foodborne diseases annually.

Data from the Environmental Health Section at the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) also cites a trend among foodborne illnesses in Georgia.  November, December and January are often the months with the most frequent cases of reported food poisoning or other food-related illnesses.

“The holidays provide an exciting time for Georgians to enjoy the season alongside their favorite meals, but it’s easy to forget important food handling protocols when cooking and entertaining for crowds of people,” said Cameron Wiggins, food service program director for the Georgia Department of Public Health.  “Most often, we have documented cases of food poisoning or other foodborne illnesses caused by salmonella and clostridium, which are bacteria associated with undercooked foods.”

With food-related illnesses becoming more common in recent years, the holiday season is the perfect time to remind Georgians of the important food safety measures that should be taken when preparing holiday meals.

“Proper food preparation and handling should be centered on four primary actions as recommended by the Department of Public Health and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) – clean, separate, cook and chill,” said Wiggins.

Washing hands with warm water and soap for 20 seconds before and after handling food is the leading recommendation from food safety experts.  It’s important to maintain sanitation in other unsuspecting areas of the kitchen by frequently cleaning countertops, cutting boards and utensils with hot soapy water. Cooks should avoid washing raw meat and poultry before cooking to minimize the spread of bacteria to areas surrounding the kitchen sink.

Keeping foods properly separated is also an effective way to reduce cross-contamination of harmful bacteria. It is vital to use different cutting boards, containers and plates for foods that will be cooked like poultry and seafood and foods that will not be cooked such as fruits and vegetables.

“Cooking food thoroughly sounds like a simple recommendation, but undercooked poultry such as turkey is often the leading cause of food-related illnesses during the holiday season,” Wiggins said.  "It is recommended that cooks use a thermometer to ensure the turkey has reached the appropriate temperature before serving.”

While it may be difficult to avoid eating the batter of the delicious cakes and cookies that are often holiday staples, it is vital to consume these items after they are fully cooked as they may contain raw eggs.

The final step of proper food handling is simple – keep food cold, especially the leftovers that guests may want to enjoy later.

Thawing food should also be a careful process; it should never be done at room temperature.  Instead, it is recommended that food products are thawed under cold running water or in the microwave.

Food is one of the best parts of the holiday season for everyone, but should be handled with care to ensure the safety of your guests.  The next time you prepare dinner for a gathering, incorporating these four easy steps to food handling will take your mind of the risk of food illnesses and let you get back to enjoying the festivities of the holiday season.

To learn more about safe food handling, visit the FDA online to read more safety tips for a healthy holiday season. 

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