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Healthy Living

Avoid Food-Borne Illness During The Holidays

Protect yourself and your guests from food poisoning this holiday season. Here are some helpful hints that you'll want to follow to make sure your turkey and your leftovers don't make people sick.

When it comes to poultry, whether it's turkey during the holidays or chicken anytime during the year, we need to take extra precautions.

Poultry can be contaminated with a bacteria called salmonella, and if it is not killed, it can infect people. Salmonella poisoning makes most people very sick and can even be deadly, according to family physician Dr. I. Phillip Snider.

"People usually develop diarrhea, fever, abdominal cramps, and they will start to feel flu-like symptoms," he said. "And most people will get through these just fine in four to seven days. But people who are very young, like infants or young children, or elderly individuals or somebody with a compromised immune system, they will have a harder time fighting the infection."

Salmonella is found in raw turkey, chicken, and duck. It is very important to thaw poultry in the refrigerator, not at room temperature. This is because if you get your bird too warm, salmonella can grow.

Chef David Miller is an instructor at the Virginia Culinary Institute. He says turkeys often require days, not hours, of thawing time in the refrigerator. Many cooks don't realize this until it is too late, and they don't have days in which to thaw their turkey before the big holiday meal. If that happens to you, fear not, there is this "plan B."

"If you have to rush it, the best way to do it is under cool, running water so the turkey is covered but the water stays running the whole time," Miller advises. "The water should be draining."

It's important to understand that raw poultry juices can be contaminated with salmonella, so always put your bird in a pan while you are thawing it in the refrigerator. Those raw juices can contaminate everything they touch, so keep them away from other foods.

"After you've been handling the raw bird, you need to make sure the surfaces are clean, the knives are clean, and you wash your hands real thoroughly before handling anything else," Miller said.

To kill bacteria, use soap or, to be most cautious, mix a tablespoon of bleach into a gallon of warm water. Use paper towels because bacteria can breed in sponges.

In order to kill salmonella during cooking, the oven temperature needs to be at least 325 degrees, no lower. Use a thermometer inserted deep inside the turkey, not touching the bone, and cook the turkey until the turkey's internal temperature reaches 165 degrees F.

So that's the low-down on salmonella. But it doesn't end there.

E-coli is another bacteria that sometimes ruins a holiday get-together.

"Any time you get a food-borne illness it will take anywhere from 12 to 72 hours to know that you're starting to get the symptoms," Dr. Snider said. "So oftentimes it's very difficult to know when it's a food-borne illness versus a viral infection that can give you intestinal symptoms."

E-coli bacteria can grow when the temperature of the food is warmer than 40 degrees, but cooler than 140 degrees. So make sure your refrigerator is cool enough, and get those leftovers in there within two hours of serving them.

In other words, don't leave them sitting on the table or on the counter for hours and hours for people to "graze" upon. Put those leftovers in small containers and try to eat them within four days for optimal protection.