State health officials hope New Jerseyans will enjoy the holiday season but they warn be careful of how food is defrosted, cooked and eaten.
Annually, 48 million Americans get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from food-related illness, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Cooking, serving and storing food at safe temperatures and using pasteurized products are important ways to avoid illness from bacteria such as e. coli or Salmonella, two of the more common but serious food-related illnesses.
“When you are entertaining and cooking your favorite holiday foods, it is important to take precautions to reduce the risk of food-borne illness to you and your family,” Health and Senior Services Commissioner Mary E. O’Dowd said Wednesday. “It is important to follow proper guidelines on preparing and serving food and ensure that holiday dishes are cooked at the correct temperature and leftovers are always thoroughly reheated. The Health Department has resources on its website to assist you in preparing meals safely.”
For example, when cooking turkey, everyone should use a food thermometer to make sure the meat is cooked properly. Food thermometers usually cost less than $10 and are widely available at supermarkets and convenience stores. The temperature of the thickest part of the breast or thigh should be at least 165° F (74 C).
Stuffing should also be cooked separately in its own oven dish or on the stove top to avoid cross-contamination. If you choose to stuff your turkey, make sure that the stuffing is packed loosely just prior to roasting. Then remove all stuffing immediately after cooking.
There are three ways to defrost turkey - in the refrigerator, in cold water, or in the microwave. Never defrost turkey at room temperature.
In November 1968, an immigrant family in Jersey City set a turkey on a fire escape to defrost and than ate it for Thanksgiving. Within a few days, the entire family—and the family dog—was dead from food poisoning.
If you decide to thaw the turkey in the refrigerator, place it in a large cooking dish on the bottom shelf to prevent raw juices from dripping onto other foods. If juices leak onto food that will not be cooked, dispose of the food. If drippings spill onto refrigerator shelves, clean with soap and water. Turkey in a leak-proof package may be defrosted in cold water. Food preparers need to submerge the whole bird or cut-up parts in cold water, changing the water every 30 minutes. If using the microwave, the turkey must be cooked immediately after thawing because some areas of the food may become warm and begin to cook during microwaving.
Besides cooking turkey properly, the Health Department offers the following tips to avoid food-related illness:
When making cookies, cakes or other baked goods, always make sure baked goods are cooked thoroughly and never eat raw cookie dough or batter made from raw eggs.
Purchase eggnog that is pasteurized to remove any dangerous bacteria. If you are making homemade eggnog, always use pasteurized egg and milk ingredients.
Check labels to ensure that you are buying only pasteurized fruit juices and cider during the holidays, and year- round. Unpasteurized juice and cider can contain dangerous bacteria like E.coli or Salmonella that cause serious illness (especially in children, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems).
If you choose to serve and eat raw shellfish, you need to take extra precautions in order to reduce the risk of foodborne illness. Raw or undercooked shellfish may contain bacteria, parasites or viruses, these foods require special care. Keep raw oysters and clams refrigerated, and serve them on ice to ensure they remain cold at holiday buffets. And older adults, pregnant women, young children, and people with weakened immune systems are more vulnerable to the risks of foodborne illness, and should never eat raw or undercooked shellfish.
When serving food on a buffet, always use holding trays, chafing dishes, and crock pots to keep foods hot. Never use holding trays to warm food up. They should only be used to hold food that is already warmed. Put serving trays on crushed ice to keep cold foods cold. Don't let food stay at room temperature for more than two hours.
For additional guidance, the Health Department’s Food and Drug Safety Program offers “Holiday Food Safety Tips,” a fact sheet packed with information for consumers about food temperatures, what to do with leftovers and much more.
The fact sheet is available on the Program’s website at:
There is also a number to call with any questions at (609)826-4935.
—TOM HESTER SR., NEWJERSEYNEWSROOM.COM