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Some Good Advice for Illness-free Feasting

Aside from the common risk of gaining a few pounds from the culinary temptations offered up during and between holiday meals, there are a few other food-related risks that can make you both sick and extremely uncomfortable.  The good news is that these food-related illness risks may be easier to avoid than the temptation of that third helping of turkey or pie.
The large bird, usually a turkey presents the biggest opportunities for creating food-related illnesses.  The steps you can take to dodge this outcome start with the process of thawing the bird.  The problem usually begins when you buy your bird late, less than two days before the meal and feel that your only quick thawing option is to leave the bird in the kitchen sink or counter for half a day until it is thawed.   This all-too-common misstep paves a smooth path down the road to food poisoning.   Unfortunately, the only safe way is the slow way.  Putting the frozen bird in the fridge and allowing it 24 hours per every five pounds of bird will keep your turkey from becoming an incubator for bad bugs.   Also be sure to put the turkey in a pan to make sure that the bacteria-rich leaking juices to not rain down on the food stored below the bird.  When handling the raw bird (or any other raw meat product),assume that the bacteria on the bird are now on your hands and utensils, so carefully wash up with soap and water before touching any other items.  Also be very careful about cleaning surfaces, cutting boards, and utensils after contact, and before you let them touch anything else.
Follow the cooking instructions as if your health and well-being depended on them. They do. There are specific cooking times that are determined by the weight of the bird and specific temperature guidelines. (See the link below for specifics.) Always use a meat thermometer while cooking. The turkey is safe to eat when the inner temperature reaches 165º F. Many cooks and food safety experts recommend that you prepare the stuffing separate from the bird. If you do stuff the bird, you also need to be sure that the stuffing reaches the same 165º F temperature to make sure that it is also safe to eat.  
Among the joys following holiday feasts are the leisurely conversations or the rush to the next room to watch football games.   It is a situation that often leaves the turkey and all the fixings on the table for several hours. The sense of contentment after the good meal sometimes leaves us in a state where we´ve forgotten everything we´ve ever learned about the germ theory.   Foods left on the table for more than two hours will start breeding the kinds of bacteria that can make you quite sick when you attack the leftovers over the next few days.   It should be clarified that the words “quite sick” in this case involve vomiting and diarrhea, which can make the days following the meal extremely unpleasant and potentially dangerous to the very old and the very young.  
Recent news stories have pointed out another avoidable food-related health risk.  Raw ground beef is sometimes served as a European ethnic specialty in the form of “cannibal sandwiches” or as a “gourmet” appetizer called steak tartar. The risk of becoming extremely ill from eating it in either form highly outweighs whatever the perceived culinary benefit that this inherently dangerous dish might offer.
Following the above advice will help keep those uninvited bacterial visitors from ruining your holiday season.


  • Jeff Golden, Public Health Madison Dane County, (608) 243-0302