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The Dos and Don'ts of Food Safety

Everything you need to know for your next big dinner.

You think you have a stomach of steel—until you get a bad bout of food poisoning, that is. And while you may be tempted to throw caution to the wind, food borne illness can be serious business. According to the American Dietetic Association (ADA), millions of people are sickened, 325,000 are hospitalized and 5,000 die each year from food poisoning. So when you're lending a hand in the kitchen or browsing the buffet table this holiday season, rely on these tips to keep you and your guests healthy and happy into the New Year.

Don't allow leftovers to cool to room temperature before refrigerating them.
Most people never think it's a good idea to put hot food directly into the refrigerator. According to Joan Salge Blake, a registered dietitian, ADA spokesperson and nutrition professor at Boston University, bacteria multiply most rapidly between 40 and 140-degrees Fahrenheit. And unless you live in an igloo or an oven, your house's temperature falls somewhere in this 40 to 140-degree danger zone. To play it safe, follow the two-hour rule: Don't let food stand at room temperature for more than two hours. "So often people think it's cool enough to put in the fridge, but that's because it's already been sitting at room temperature for more than two hours," says Blake.

Don't let your fridge get too warm.
When it comes time for holiday entertaining, your fridge is jam-packed with turkey, stuffing, gravy, and pumpkin pie, oh my! So, make sure your food remains at a safe temperature. "You have to make sure your refrigerator is set at 40-degrees Fahrenheit or lower," says Blake. "Surprisingly a lot of refrigerators aren't set that low automatically. So it's worth checking out." Use a refrigerator thermometer to gauge the temperature. They range from $3 to $300 and come in plastic, stainless steel and even digital varieties. Just make sure to place the thermometer in the front of the refrigerator, where it is warmest.

If you find the inside is above the magical number 40, think about how often you pop open the fridge for ingredients while cooking, or even that split second when you're grabbing another beer. You may have to turn the dial down to the coolest setting during the football and holiday seasons, when your fridge becomes a high traffic area.

Do stack your food carefully in the fridge.
We hear you. We weren't born with the organization gene either. But if you organize even just one area of your pad, let it be your fridge. Your refrigerator can be breeding grounds for bacteria, even if the temperature is as low as it can go.

When you're short on space due to an upcoming party, it's easy to simply stick groceries wherever they fit. However, a little thought could go a long way, when it comes to preventing your friends and family from getting sick.

Try to organize food in a way that prevents cross contamination. To ensure the juices from your meat, fish or poultry don't drip and cross contaminate other foods, keep these items well sealed and away from any foods you won't be cooking. To be extra safe, use the same strategy in your shopping cart.

Don't wash meat and poultry.
Rinsing raw meat and poultry, can actually increase your chances of spreading nasty bacteria. "Washing your meat is not going to kill any of the bacteria," says Blake. "What is going to kill the bacteria is cooking the meat." Rinsing meat and poultry can leave traces of bacteria, like Salmonella or E. coli, inside your sink. Once you've made the mistake of rinsing that tenderloin, breast or chop, anything else that comes in contact with the sink has the potential of picking up some meaty bacteria. To be safe, when it comes to rinsing food, stick to this rule—veggies only! Read: there is no health benefit to gain from washing that 20-pound turkey. Not one.

Do use expiration dates as general guidelines.
Let's revisit the "man possesses stomach of steel" theory. Here's the scene: you go for an ice-cold glass of milk only to discover the expiration date on the carton was two days ago. Quite a conundrum. Will taking a swig or two kill you? No. Will it give you a case of the runs? Probably not. So, what are those ominous expiration dates for? They serve as a simple reminder to the consumer to discard food that's no longer considered "quality."

"Consuming something the day after it's expired isn't a matter of safety, what it is, is a matter of quality," says Blake. "From the expiration date on your food is no longer going to be at its peak quality." So unless you want to drink funky tasting milk, it's a good guideline to follow. Of course, if that expiration date was a month ago, there's a good chance a case of the runs will be in your near future.

Do use a meat thermometer.
Meat is a man's job. Stuff, cook and carve away. We salute you. We just ask that you take heed to the advice of your mom—stick a thermometer in that huge hunk of meat. Using a meat thermometer is not just some womanly convention. "You cannot cook with 20/20 vision," warns Blake. "Meat tends to appear cooked before it's actually cooked all the way through. Beef for example, almost always turns brown before it is really safe to eat. You really need that food thermometer."

Do beware of the buffet table.
Before you start shoveling food from the buffet table into your mouth, be sure you (or the host) follows a few simple buffet safety rules. Cold foods, like dips or shrimp cocktail, should be put on ice. Hot foods need to be placed on a heating tray. And don't forget that two-hour rule: discard anything that's been sitting at room temperature longer than two hours. "Some people have parties that last five or six hours, and the food just sits out there," says Blake. "If you allow that to happen your party guests are going to be remembering your party the next day . . . and not in a good way."

Do know which foods are common culprits of spreading food borne illness.
While moist, protein rich foods, like poultry and meat do need to be handled with care, they are not the riskiest foods in your shopping cart, according to a report by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). In fact, the CSPI's list of "high risk" foods regulated by the FDA might surprise you. The list, in descending order of risk, reads like this: leafy greens, eggs, tuna, oysters, potatoes, cheese, ice cream, tomatoes, sprouts and berries. However, you don't have to eliminate these foods from your fridge; the CSPI offers a few words of encouragement. Washing your produce and cooking most of these foods can help cut your risk of contamination. And most ice cream illnesses are due to the consumption of homemade ice cream, containing undercooked eggs.

And, in the case that you do get sick . . . Do know the difference between food poisoning and the flu.
When everyone around you is an incubus of some form of viral plague, it can be hard to decipher when you have food poisoning. According to the CDC, if you have a high fever (over 101.5), diarrhea, blood in your stool, vomiting, dehydration, increased urination or dry mouth for more than three days, you should call your doctor immediately.

It's important to know that some types of food borne illness do not go away without treatment. Certain intestinal infections caused by food require antibiotics, so if gastro symptoms persist don't hesitate to make an appointment.

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