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Topics > Healthy Outlook > Food Safety During the Holidays

Food Safety During the Holidays

Published by Contra Costa Times

Posted on Wed., December 10, 2008
By Sherman Quinlan

Preparing food for family and friends is a big part of the holiday spirit. And few things deflate your pride faster than learning that your friends or family fell ill after eating your home-cooked food.

There are an estimated 76 million cases of food-borne illness in the United State s every year. Most of these cases are mild and last fewer than two days. However, the CDC estimates that there are 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths each year in the United States related to food-borne illness.

In January 2008, in Contra Costa County, a food-borne illness outbreak at a popular restaurant involved more than 50 ill patrons. The outbreak occurred when a sick food worker contaminated food served to the diners. Inadequate hand washing, and unsanitary utensils and surfaces contributed to the contamination by the Novovirus (see previous Healthy Outlook column).

Keeping your food safe is not difficult, but it requires a little extra time and effort.

Avoid contaminating your food.

  • Wash your hands, especially after changing a diaper, touching a pet, or handling money. In one study, kids who washed their hands four times a day had 24% fewer colds and 51% fewer absences due to upset stomachs, than kids who didn´t wash.
  • Clean kitchen surfaces, utensils or dishes your food may touch.
  • Wash produce in cold running water.

Keep raw meat, chicken and seafood separate from other foods.

  • Raw meats should not touch ready-to-eat food, such as produce or food that has already been prepared.
  • Always wrap meat tightly and store below other foods in the refrigerator to keep juices from dripping onto other foods.
  • Don´t taste or eat marinade used to flavor raw meat or s eafood, unless you boil it first.
  • Defrost food in the refrigerator, submerged in cold water or in the microwave, not on the counter or in hot water.

Cook your food thoroughly.

  • Your food should always be cooked to its safe temperature to ensure all germs have been killed. The only way to be sure is to use a meet thermometer to see the temperature inside the meat. Looking at the color of the meat is not enough.
  • Re-heating partially cooked meat does not guarantee all germs and the toxins will be gone.

Chill your food properly.

  • Refrigerate at 40°F any perishable food that will not be eaten within 2 hours, right away if the room temperature is 90 degrees or more.
  • Leaving leftover food on the counter to cool down will increase the chances of food-borne illness.

Lastly, notify health officials.

If you suspect a food-borne illness, you should call your local health department at 925-692-2500.

Pregnant women, the elderly and those with weak immune systems are more likely to develop severe complications from food-borne illness, so be extra careful when preparing and handling food for them.

If you are concerned about eating out during the holidays, you can check the health inspection records of most restaurants. Contra Costa Health Services inspects food facilities and posts results on its website,

When you know your favorite restaurant has no major violations of health standards, you can enjoy the eating experience with confidence.

Mr. Quinlan is director of the Environmental Health Division of Contra Costa Health Services, the county health department.

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