Don't Give Your Family the Gift of Foodborne Illness

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Cook safely this holiday season. REUTERS/Marco Bello

Foodborne illness is a serious threat during the holiday season, especially when people who don't typically cook decide to try out their new "Master Chef" skills. So, unless one's intention is to do away with their mother-in-law before the new year, it's important to adhere to some basics of food safety when preparing meals for your family and friends.

Each year, approximately one in six people in the U.S. (48 million) at some point pick up a foodborne illness, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Food poisoning sends 128,000 people to the hospital each year and approximately 3,000 die as a result of eating poorly prepared and contaminated food.

Related: Americans toss out 80 billion pounds of food each year, much of it still safe to eat

Even some of the most sophisticated home cooks make common mistakes when it comes to food preparation that could potentially pose risk for illness from e. coli, salmonella, listeria and other types of germs that may develop if preparation and cooking is done improperly.

Here are some tips for cooking safely:

Many people are confused—and intimidated—by the prospects of preparing raw meat and fish, which is a potential vector for bacteria.The bacteria that causes food poisoning thrives at temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit.

This is why it's critical to thaw meat properly. You can let meat defrost overnight in the refrigerator and it can remain there before cooking, for up to one or two days. A turkey needs to thaw for 24 hours per five pounds of weight. So if you've purchased a 15-pound bird, get it out of the freezer at least three days before you plan to start cooking. Cold water thawing—in which you submerge a sealed package of meat or fish in a bowl of cold water—is also safe when done right. Change the water in the bowl every 30 minutes and never refreeze the meat after it's completely defrosted. If you're short on time or a bad planner, the microwave may be essential for meal preparation. If you choose to use a microwave for defrosting meat, you'll need to cook it right away because parts of the tissue may begin to warm and cook, which can introduce bacterial growth. It's also safe to cook meat in a frozen state, but it will need to stay in the oven at least 50 percent longer.

Related: FDA takes additional steps to address foodborne illness

Out of fear of food poisoning, many home chefs sacrifice the taste by overcooking poultry, fowl, red meat and fish. But there is no reason to do so. Many home cooks are led to believe they can tell when meat is done cooking by simply checking the color. You can (sort of) get away with this for something small, like boneless chicken breasts. However, it's not completely safe, especially when you're cooking a 15-pound turkey. The only surefire way to know your dish has been cooked all the way through is to check its temperature. Invest in a food thermometer; a basic one costs as little as $10. Follow this handy chart provided by our federal health officials so you know how long to leave that rump roast in the oven. Some meats require time to rest before being served—not because they're tired but because the temperature, as it remains constant or rises, continues to kill bacteria and other germs.

As it cools, all food becomes more prone to bacterial growth, which means you might want to rethink the buffet and keep everything warm, above 140 degrees Fahrenheit, for guests coming back for second helpings. Another rule of thumb is to not leave cooked food unheated or unrefrigerated for more than two hours.

Many home (and professional) chefs are guilty of cross-contamination. Don't use the same cutting board, plates or utensils for preparing fruits and vegetables as you do for meat. Real food safety sticklers (and the CDC) recommend keeping raw meats and fish bagged in the refrigerator and shopping cart to avoid cross-contamination with produce.

Cross-contamination can also occur when you forget to wash your hands. Lather up your hands for at least 20 seconds, the amount of time it takes to sing "Happy Birthday."

Don't Give Your Family the Gift of Foodborne Illness | Tech & Science
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