For me, putting together a Thanksgiving dinner is about as relaxing as sitting in holiday traffic. But I thought I had a pretty good handle on the food-safety rules:
More than 50 percent of people defrost meat at room temperature, where it can develop bacteria.
Don't chop the veggies on the same cutting board you used for the bird.
Use a meat thermometer.
But it turns out there are as many ways to commit food felonies as there are "Law & Order" spin-offs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that there are 76 million cases of foodborne illness in the United States every year, resulting in 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths.
I found out at least part of the reason why when food-safety expert Elisa Zied, R.D., author of "Feed Your Family Right!," documented all of my misdeeds as I cooked my Thanksgiving meal. Luckily she gave me the 411 on the easy fixes. Welcome to the crime scene -- my kitchen. Health.com: The germiest places in America
9 a.m. -- Turkey time
Because I know working with raw meat is risky, I was very careful when prepping the turkey. I defrosted the bird in the fridge, and tried not to grope other things in the kitchen as I manhandled it. Once it was in the oven, I washed everything the meat had touched, using hot soapy water. I felt like I was being overly cautious, but Zied said I was a meat-handling ace. Few people are, though. According to the Partnership for Food Safety Education, more than 50 percent of people defrost meat at room temperature, where it can develop bacteria. And only a third always use a separate cutting board for meat to avoid getting raw juices on produce and other foods. Still, I'm confident I'll get through the day without slipping up. But not for long. Health.com: Think your house is clean? Think again
9:12 a.m. Hand-washing gone wrong
My first violation: touching the faucet knobs as I went to wash my hands. Zied admonished me and told me to use a paper towel to turn on the faucet instead. OK, easy enough. But to make matters worse, I didn't soap up with warm water for the recommended 20 seconds (long enough to sing "Happy Birthday"). Washing any less than that, Zied says, is almost as bad as not washing at all -- it's just not enough time to get rid of all the bacteria. I promised to do better next time.
10:09 a.m. -- The onion incident
I got bonus points for planning to cook my cornbread stuffing in a separate pan rather than inside the turkey. Stuffing cooked in the bird rarely reaches the recommended safe temperature (165 degrees) and is, therefore, a bacteria breeding ground. But Zied stopped me as I started slicing an onion to add to the mix. Apparently, I was supposed to wash the onion before cutting into it. It seems that the knife can pick up bacteria from the skin and transfer it to the flesh as it passes through. Who knew? ( I protested, but Zied stood firm. Be sure that you rinse all fruits and veggies before cutting into them. Health.com: The really scary stuff is in your fridge
11:10 a.m. -- Meat misdemeanor
I pulled the turkey out of the oven for a second temperature check, plunging the thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh. I watched as the needle inched up to 180 degrees, the goal internal temperature. (Poultry is safe to eat at 165, but most recipes suggest a more appetizing 180 degrees.) But I neglected to wash the thermometer with hot soapy water after the first time I used it, which Zied said can spread any bacteria that exist in undercooked meat. Health.com: Safe food prep and storage
2:30 p.m. -- Left out leftovers
So, finally, the food was ready, served, and eaten. The dishes were cleared. The pos-tmeal coffee was all gone. By the time I started the cleanup, the stuffing had been sitting out for a full three hours. Oops. Anything more than two hours, Zied said, is trouble. "After that first two hours, the bacteria start to multiply exponentially." There goes tomorrow's lunch.
3 p.m. -- Time off for (relatively) good behavior
Despite my multiple offenses, I somehow managed to avoid a complete food-safety disaster. But it's obvious from my experience that there are plenty of ways to trip up and give both your guests and yourself a nasty case of food poisoning. You can learn from mistakes, though. Check out my advice for staying out of trouble. E-mail to a friend
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Copyright Health Magazine 2009