URBANA, Ill. – As families begin preparing for the winter holidays, sharing news and favorite recipes, they sometimes forget about the importance of food safety, said a University of Illinois Extension nutrition and wellness educator.
"Acccording to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in six persons suffers from foodborne illness in the United States each year. That means 128,000 hospitalizations and about 3,000 deaths annually,” said Laura Lynn Barr.
Barr said that the biggest threats of foodborne illness come from person-to-food contamination or time and temperature abuse.
“Wash hands frequently, covering sores and keeping fingernails short, to reduce the incidence of person-to-food contamination,” she said.
Time and temperature controls ensure that bacteria cannot reproduce to numbers that have the ability to make us sick, she added.
According to the CDC, the top five pathogens are norovirus, salmonella, Clostridium perfringens, Campylobacter jejuni, and Staphylococcus aureus in that order.
“To avoid transmitting norovirus, avoid food preparation for others. This prevents person-to-food contamination. Also, remember to wash produce, thoroughly cook shellfish, and disinfect food preparation utensils and counter surfaces to stop norovirus in its tracks,” Barr said.
Similarly, people who have salmonellosis should avoid preparing food for others until their symptoms are gone. Salmonella is frequently found in raw eggs, poultry, unpasteurized dairy products, meat, and unwashed produce, she said.
The CDC cautions, “Food prepared on surfaces that previously were in contact with raw meat become unsafe. This is called cross-contamination.” Salmonella is destroyed by cooking foods to the correct temperature and by effective cleaning, Barr noted.
Clostridium perfringens is another culprit that dwells in high-protein foods. It has the ability to change into spores—bacteria in a dormant state—and these spores can change back to bacteria when the temperature is right. This type of food poisoning is mostly caused by leaving potentially hazardous foods in the danger zone—from 41 to 135°F—for more than two hours.
“Cool down large-batch foods (gravy, soup, sauce, and stew) quickly to prevent illness. And reheat leftovers to at least 165°F for 15 seconds to destroy bacteria,” Barr advised.
The CDC identifies Campylobacter jejuni as one of the leading causes of bacterial diarrhea sickness in the United States. The sources of campylobacteriosis include raw and undercooked poultry, raw milk, untreated water, and fecal waste. To prevent this infection, be sure to wash hands frequently and never cross-contaminate raw foods with cooked foods, she said.
“Finally, Staphylococcus aureus is common in the environment and resides in the nose and skin of some healthy adults. Staph becomes infective when skin is broken, and it multiplies and spreads to others. Hand washing and wound covering are critical to prohibit staph infections,” Barr said.
Remember these simple habits to inhibit the spread of foodborne illness:
- Wash hands thoroughly before food preparation and in between tasks.
- Prepare raw meats separately from other foods.
- Keep wet and dry ingredients for stuffing separate until you are ready to bake.
- Cook potentially hazardous foods in an oven set at 325°F or higher.
- Use a food thermometer.
- Cook turkey and stuffing to an internal temperature of 165°F for 15 seconds.
- Refrigerate leftovers within two hours of serving.
“Take extra care this holiday season to keep your family safe while you are enjoying meals and time together,” Barr said.