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Don’t spoil your fun with food-borne illness

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Holidays bring food, and food brings the potential for food-borne illness.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, of the 76 million people in the United States who are affected by food-borne illness annually, 5,000 of those people die, and 300,000 more are hospitalized.

Bryce C. Larsen, the director of the Bureau of Food Protection at Salt Lake Valley Health Department, said a major perpetrator of food-borne illness is cross-contamination. That occurs when a cook handles "high-risk" foods such as a turkey, and then handles other food, such as uncooked fruits and vegetables. Bacteria from the turkey is transferred to the uncooked fruits or vegetables; without the benefit of heat from cooking to kill the bacteria, it is eaten, leading to possible sickness.

"Adequately wash your hands when you prepare other types of food," Larsen said. Also, wash food preparation surfaces when preparing different foods.

Another food-borne illness culprit is the sick cook. Larsen said a coughing, sneezing and otherwise ill cook may spread illness to the food, potentially infecting the eaters. He recommends that an ill person take the day off from cooking. However, if that is not possible, the ill cook should wash his or her hands frequently.

Not to be forgotten in the food safety lineup is temperature. Larsen said the key is to "keep cold food cold and hot food hot."

Hot food should be held at 135 degrees, while cold food should be down to 41 degrees. Anything in between is the "danger zone," which Larsen said is the temperature where bacteria grow and flourish.

Also, turkey should reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees to ensure all bacteria is destroyed. Use a food probe to determine temperature. If one is not available, use visual clues — clear juices, and appearance and texture of the bird.

After the Thanksgiving feast, Larsen said many people leave food out on the table or counter for those who wish to add to their ever-expanding bellies. He said leaving food out may cause it to go into the "danger zone," once again opening the door for food-borne illness, so people should promptly put their culinary delights in the refrigerator.

If food is to stay on the table, he said it has a life of four hours. After four hours in the "danger zone," the food should be discarded. Also, when going back to graze after the main meal, don't forget to wash your hands, Larsen said.

If a person does get a food-borne illness, Larsen said, it usually lasts four or five days. However, in very old and young people, and those with weak immune systems, food-borne illness may be fatal. People who get sick should drink plenty of liquids, and if the symptoms persist, seek medical attention.

For more information, visit the Salt Lake Valley Health Department's Web site at www.slvhealth.org and click on "Environmental Health."

E-mail: lwilde@desnews.com