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While many unfortunate victims may blame Thanksgiving and holiday meal indigestion on the food itself, Newtown Health District Food Service Inspector Suzette LeBlanc is quick to assure that most foodborne illnesses following holiday meals are the result of issues that occur in early stage preparation, or the improper handling of leftovers.
“I find that most issues crop up in handling, either before or after the main meal is served,” she said.
The local health official, who oversees restaurant and food service inspections across the community and who often hosts large family gatherings at her own dining table, told The Newtown Bee this week that a few basic practices and one simple tool can make all the difference when it comes to keeping holiday meals and desserts safe from prep to leftover.
“Planning is important, and now is the time to be planning if you are hosting even a relatively small group for Thanksgiving,” she said.
Ms LeBlanc said that while the best veggies, fruits, and other ingredients are best obtained as close to cooking time as possible, the turkey is another matter entirely, unless it is being bought fresh and will never be frozen.
“While there is no inherent risk in purchasing your vegetables and other cooking supplies well ahead of Thanksgiving week, your frozen turkey will take planning,” she said. “First and foremost, the safest way to defrost a frozen turkey is in the fridge. I know it will take up a significant amount of room in there, but you must provide 24 hours of thawing time for every four to five pounds of bird. So a frozen 15-pound turkey will take around three full days to thaw in the fridge.”
For those whose situation or space prevents refrigerator thawing, the US Department of Agriculture suggests immersing the frozen bird in water cooled to 70 degrees or less — changing the water out about every 30 minutes until the turkey is fully thawed. Ms LeBlanc also reminds those who are getting fresh unfrozen turkey that the bird cannot be held safe in the fridge for more than three days or 72 hours before cooking.
Stuffing is another dish that is more prone to causing foodborne illness, so the local food service expert strongly recommends preparing and cooking stuffing separately.
“For those purists who must have some or all of their stuffing inside the bird, it should be prepped and packed loosely inside immediately before the turkey goes in the oven,” she said. “And once the bird is cooked to the proper and safe temperature of 165 degrees [F]) it should be taken out and left to stand for about 20 minutes before carving and serving the stuffing.”
Other points to remember:
*NEVER put the stuffed bird in the fridge;
*NEVER let someone who is sick near the prep or serving areas;
*ALWAYS keep any raw meat separate from all other ingredients;
*ALWAYS wash and sanitize any utensils and surfaces touched by any meats before any other food touches that surface or those utensils.
The Leftovers Conundrum
Ms LeBlanc is also very aware that leftovers can be the root of much Thanksgiving evening and Black Friday agita. And her own personal practice is to distribute markers and shallow plastic sealed containers to guests as the main meal is finishing, so guests can mark and pack their own leftover portions.
“Then they go right in the fridge before we clear the table for dessert,” she said. “It’s all about loosely packing up those leftovers and getting them cold as quickly as possible.”
She then takes the extra step of sending leftovers home with an ice pack to keep them cold during transport.
“You should always use shallow containers,” she said, “because the more tightly packed and thick the food is layered, the more likely that the center will remain warm, and that’s when harmful bacteria can begin to grow.”
Those containers should also be staggered or spread out in the fridge so the cool air uniformly circulates around the containers, she added. Then when serving, any leftovers should be reheated to 165 degrees.
“That’s why I consider a calibrated thermometer the most important cooking tool,” Ms LeBlanc said. “I use it for meats, stuffing, gravies, fish, and even casseroles.”
Easily calibrate a kitchen thermometer in just five minutes by sticking it in a container of one-third ice and two-thirds water. As long as it comes out reading a degree or two around 32 degrees, it is working properly.
And although most holiday desserts have more flexible handling and storing parameters, any dessert involving dairy products like cream or custard only have a two-hour window of serving time — otherwise they should be kept refrigerated.
Foodborne Illness Caution
According to Marjorie Davidson, a consumer educator at FDA, Thanksgiving merriment can change to misery if food makes somebody ill.
Typical symptoms of foodborne illness are vomiting, diarrhea, and flulike symptoms, which can start anywhere from hours to days after contaminated food or drinks are consumed. Those symptoms usually are not long-lasting in healthy people — a few hours or a few days — and usually go away without medical treatment.
But foodborne illness can be severe and even life-threatening to anyone, especially those most at risk: older adults, infants and young children, as well as pregnant women, or people with HIV/AIDS, cancer, or any condition that weakens their immune system, as well as people who take medicines that suppress the immune system; for example, some medicines for rheumatoid arthritis.
Combating bacteria, viruses, parasites, and other contaminants in the food supply is a high priority for the Food and Drug Administration. But consumers have a role to play, too, especially when it comes to safe food-handling practices in the home, she said.
“The good news is that practicing basic food safety measures can help prevent foodborne illness,” Ms Davidson assured.