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Newtown Health District’s own Food Service Inspector Suzette LeBlanc knows that her own Thanksgiving table might be a potential harbor for a foodborne illness.
“It’s true,” she told The Bee a week ahead of arguably America’s biggest food-centric holiday. “When it comes to foodborne contamination, it can happen anywhere, even at my house. But when it comes to preparation, serving, and storing or sending leftovers home for your guests to enjoy again — it’s all about eliminating as many opportunities for contamination to occur.”
In that respect, there are a few key numbers to remember. First, most foods and especially your turkey or other meats, and stuffing, should be thoroughly cooked to an interior temperature of 165 degrees, and should be served at no less than 140 degrees. Once food hits that 140 degree level, the next critical number to remember is 4.
“Once your turkey and stuffing hits 140 degrees the clock starts ticking, and you have about four hours before you must get that food refrigerated or you’re going to begin to have a potential for problems,” she said.
This year, health district Administrative Assistant Maureen Schaedler thought it would be a good idea to create a display in one of the highest traffic areas of the Municipal Center, highlighting Thanksgiving — and particularly turkey preparation — safety. The result was an impromptu information station complete with a banner providing some of the basic cooking parameters for your Thanksgiving bird, that if followed, should greatly reduce or eliminate much likelihood for foodborne illnesses to occur.
“We wanted to put as much information out for residents at one of the highest traffic areas in the building,” said Health District Director Donna Culbert. “We’re pretty lucky here in town that we haven’t experienced many foodborne outbreaks, so people must feel pretty safe. But I don’t know how knowledgeable people are about factors like handwashing, eliminating cross contamination, proper cooking temperatures, and those kinds of things. I think most folks carry on with customs they’ve learned in their own kitchens over the years, and generation to generation.”
So being as safe as possible in preparation and serving will tend to keep your Thanksgiving guests as safe as possible from experiencing any “tummy troubles” once they get home.
As far as the contents of most Thanksgiving tables is concerned, the local health officials said very little in the way of courses or cuisine has changed over the past few generations.
“The food we’re serving next week is just about the same as it was 10, 15, or 20 years ago,” Ms LeBlanc said.
But what today’s food conscious holiday cooks are hungry for — excuse the pun — are to be better informed about serving food well.
“There are more foodies out there, so I think the most informed foodies are cooking, and serving, and storing and sharing their leftovers with less risk,” Ms LeBlanc added.
Those who have opted to serving turkey breasts, or other pre-separated parts of the bird, face significantly lower risk of contamination than the majority of Thanksgiving preparers who enjoy the classic presentation of a full trussed up bird bursting with stuffing. But following the aforementioned numbers and some simple, basic rules should deliver a finished product that is both beautiful to behold, and ultimately safe to consume, Ms LeBlanc said.
“Again, before removing the stuffed turkey from the oven, the cook should insert a meat thermometer deep into the breast, and then as far as it will go into the stuffing cavity,” she said. “Both should return a constant temperature of 165 degrees. Then once that bird and stuffing have begun to cool to 140 degrees, the clock starts ticking on the four-hour clock.”
Folks who proudly serve their turkey deep fried should follow the same guidelines for monitoring internal temperature to 165 degrees.
Ms Culbert said her biggest concern is not necessarily contamination that may occur once the turkey is served, but contamination that could occur before the bird even goes in the oven.
“I always think about the defrosting,” she said. “I think a lot of folks leave that turkey out on the counter to defrost.”
“The problem is you have an enormous bird you have to defrost, plus all these ingredients competing for space in the home-based, noncommercial refrigerator. So people look for ways to defrost that turkey besides the way it really should be done — which is in the refrigerator,” Ms LeBlanc said. “And a totally frozen bird 20-plus pound is going to take three or four days to defrost under refrigeration.”
Another option is to defrost it under cool running water, but Ms Culbert believes this is not an option now that the town is among many in the region facing a water shortage.
Cooks also should never try to cook a partially frozen turkey, Ms LeBlanc added, particularly if it is going to be stuffed. And being sure you have a correctly calibrated food thermometer is key.
“Most thermometers come with instructions for calibrating, but basically you just mix two-thirds ice with one-third water, leave it sit for five minutes, and then insert the thermometer and verify the readout is at 32 degrees,” she said.
When it comes to appetizers, sides, and desserts, the food safety expert says any cooked vegetable needs to be handled properly. That means refrigerating them once prepped, and within four hours of being served.
“And many popular desserts, anything with dairy — custard- or cream-filled pastries and pies, cheesecake, whipped cream — all need to be held cold, taken out, served and then immediately put back in the fridge at 45 degrees or less,” she said.
Salads that contain pastas or potatoes also should be prepped and stored cold at 45 degrees, Ms LeBlanc advises. The same goes for apps like deviled eggs and especially seafoods such as scallops and shrimp.
“And your gravy needs to be served hot, 145 degrees, not at room temperature. It should be prepared or cooked and immediately served — and once it’s served it needs to be refrigerated,” she said.
Finally, one of the greatest barriers to contamination is the cleanliness of both the preparation area and those handling the food.
“The cutting or prep areas should be cleaned and disinfected between each item,” Ms Culbert said. “And hands should be thoroughly washed after each time someone is handling food. And if they are using gloves, they should be removed and replaced for each new item you are handling.”
“One sick person in the prep area could translate into virtually every person around that table going home sick,” Ms LeBlanc added.
Any resident with questions, or seeking more advice, can come to the Municipal Center at Fairfield Hills and access the reams of information on the display table outside the Health District, or they can reach Ms LeBlanc or Ms Culbert at 203-270-4291.