Common Food Mistakes

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Top Holiday Food Safety Mistakes
Extension Family and Consumer Sciences Column for December 12, 2018

Cheryle Jones Syracuse
Family and Consumer Science Staff
N.C. Cooperative Extension, Brunswick County Center

One thing we don’t want to give or share this holiday season is a foodborne illness. Sometimes called “food poisoning”, a foodborne illness is a sickness that you get from eating or drinking something that has been contaminated with disease-causing microorganisms, chemicals or other harmful substances.
Busy times, extra people in the house and refrigerators stocked full can add extra opportunities for problems that could result in foodborne illness. Unfortunately, mistakes can happen when people are hurried and not paying as close attention to food safety as they should.

Take care this season to rethink what you’re doing and avoid these common unsafe food handling practices:
1. Foods cooked to the wrong temperature. Using a food or meat thermometer is the only way to tell if food has reached a high enough temperature to kill harmful bacteria. Using a thermometer will keep you from overcooking food, too. Cook roast beef, veal, and lamb to at least 145ºF. Ground beef such as hamburgers should be cooked to 155ºF. Poultry including ground turkey and chicken should be cooked to 165ºF.

2. Cross Contamination. This means transferring illness-causing pathogens from one food or surface to another. Cross-contamination can occur from silverware, cooking utensils, countertops, sinks, and refrigerators. One of the most obvious sources is hands. Wash them frequently and carefully. Cutting boards are also a prime source of cross-contamination. It is good to have two cutting boards—one for use with raw meat and poultry only, the other for ready-to-eat foods like fruits, salads, and vegetables. Wash cutting boards in hot soapy water between uses. I have several low-cost, flexible, acrylic cutting mats that easily go into the dishwasher. Looking for a gift for the cook? A set or two of these is always appreciated.

3. Temperature Abuse. Foods should not be at room temperature for more than two hours. This includes preparation time. Keep all foods out of the temperature danger zone (40°F to 140°F) as much as possible. Keep hot foods at 140ºF or warmer. You can do this with slow cookers, warming trays or in the oven set on low. Keep cold foods cold by nesting dishes in bowls of ice. Make small platters/bowl foods to be served on buffet lines or service at parties and replace with fresh refrigerated foods when empty or within two hours. A pet peeve of mine is when people dump fresh food on top of food that has been setting out or scraping the last little bit from the old dish onto the fresh food. Both of these practices could contaminate the new food. Not worth the risk to save that little dab of food.

4. Fingers everywhere. Put chips, mints, peanuts, and other ‘finger food’ in pourable containers or provide a spoon or tongs so each person doesn’t touch the food. A great idea from colleagues with the Extension Service in Minnesota is to announce: “We will be eating in 5 minutes. This gives you time to wash your hands before eating.” They encourage everyone to wash their hands with soap and water to the tune of “Jingle Bells” before they sit down.

5. Don’t forget the leftovers. Immediately refrigerate and cool leftover food in shallow pans or dishes. Leave these containers uncovered for quick cooling and then cover later when they’re cool. If you’re sending leftovers home with guests, keep them cold until they leave and make sure that they have a cooler or a way of keeping them cold on the way home.

Some of your holiday guests may be more susceptible to foodborne illnesses due to a weaker immune system. Extra special care needs to be taken when serving food to young children, the elderly, pregnant women and those with medical conditions or organ transplants.

Celebrate safely this season. Don’t take a chance of giving someone something they don’t really want!

Source: Suzanne Driessen and Kathy Brandt, Extension Educators with University of Minnesota Extension

Syracuse is a Family and Consumer Science staff member and can be reached at N.C. Cooperative Extension, Brunswick County Center at 910-253-2610.