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No matter how you celebrate the holiday season, it likely involves food. Holiday traditions are often defined by what you eat. Whether it's ham or turkey, pumpkin or apple pie, food is a much-anticipated part of any holiday gathering. Making sure your holiday meal is prepared with food safety in mind will ensure that everyone stays healthy and happy.

Bacteria are everywhere, but a few types especially like to crash holiday festivities. Staphylococcus aureus, Clostridium perfringens and Norovirus frequent people's hands and unprotected foods. Unlike microorganisms that cause food to spoil, harmful or pathogenic bacteria have no odor or taste. Prevention by sanitizing surfaces, safe food handling and cross contamination prevention will help keep the holidays happy.

Food safety officials recommend a few simple tips for preparing the holiday meal:

The cook should be healthy. Do not prepare food if you are sick, especially with fever, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea. Illness can be passed through food. Scrub your hands clean for at least 20 seconds before touching food.

Always work in a clean kitchen. Be sure that all food equipment is clean before beginning your holiday meal. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the use of a “sanitizing solution” to destroy any bacteria that may be lurking on surfaces.

To make a cheap but effective solution, mix 1 teaspoon of non-scented bleach to a gallon of warm water. Wipe down counters and cutting boards with this solution before placing food on them.

Beware of accidentally transferring bacteria from one food or surface to another. Take extra precautions when storing or working with raw meat, poultry and seafood.

Keep these foods and their juices away from other foods, especially those that are already cooked or are ready-to-eat.

Practice strict temperature controls for all food. Bacteria thrive at temperatures between 41°F and 135°F, also known by food experts as the “Temperature Danger Zone.”

Bacteria will grow rapidly at these temperatures, allowing them to achieve high enough numbers to cause harm. Many foods that we purchase already have bacteria in them, so temperature control is critical. Be sure all cold food items are kept at 41°F or lower until served.

Be careful when thawing foods. Never thaw foods at room temperature, because bacteria will multiply rapidly. Plan ahead and thaw foods in the refrigerator. Keep in mind that large turkeys or hams may require two to four days to thaw in the refrigerator.

Cook foods to the correct temperature. Certain foods must be cooked to a particular temperature to destroy the bacteria in them. For instance, hams require 155°F, while turkey and stuffing should be cooked to 165°F for safety.

Always use a calibrated food thermometer to be sure the temperature is correct. Once cooked, keep foods hot until served (above 135°F).

Refrigerate perishable leftovers quickly after eating. Leaving food sitting out is dangerous because some bacteria can survive cooking. Leftovers should be placed immediately into small containers and refrigerated for rapid cool down.

By practicing a few simple steps, you can avoid the risk of a foodborne illness and create beautiful and delicious holiday memories.

Melinda Rice and Wolfgang Povolny are registered sanitarians at RiverStone Health. They can be reached at Melinda.ric@riverstonehealth.org, Wolfgang.pov@riverstonehealth.org, or 256-2770.

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Suzanne Ady can be reached at 657-1482.

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