SALEM - Don't let the holiday rush result in unexpected illness at the dinner table, cautions the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

"Food safety is an important factor all year around, but during the holiday season, a lot of turkeys, hams and specialty foods are cooked in large portions. A large number of people are fed," said Rod McKay, administrator of the Oregon Department of Agriculture's Food Safety Division, "You need to make sure that good, safe food handling practices are taking place during this time."

A traditional turkey needs attention even before the big meal. Thawing a whole turkey should not be done on a countertop, but in a refrigerator overnight. It may take several nights for a large turkey to thaw, but it's better than breeding a batch of bacteria.

Standard advice starts with clean hands and sanitation. And in the kitchen, people should always be aware of cross-contamination.

"If you are handling raw foods such as turkey or ham and also are working with ready-to-eat products, such as salad ingredients, make sure the cutting boards you might be placing the produce on haven't just had a raw turkey or ham on them," warned McKay. Likewise, he said its easy for utensils, particularly knives, to be used for more than one thing as several people help to prepare the meal.

Following cooking instructions carefully and using a thermometer to monitor cooking temperatures remain sound advice. Turkeys should be thoroughly cooked to 165 degrees and stuffing the bird will add to the cooking time.

Cooking a turkey the night before or partially cooking the bird can be a dangerous practice because of the danger zone temperatures of 40 degrees to 140 degrees.

If a turkey is cooked the night before, it needs to be cut in small pieces, laid in a shallow pan and cooled thoroughly. Partially cooking a turkey might just be starting the bacteria growth, with insufficient time for the heat to destroy the bacteria.

After a meal, food should not be kept out more than four hours total. Leftovers should be refrigerated or frozen. A motto of the Oregon Department of Agriculture when it comes to leftovers is: "When in doubt, throw it out."

Holiday office parties and potluck meals require the same precautions as other situations. Consider transportation of the food during and after the party/potluck and keep food cool or hot during the event, using a cooler of heating element.

During the past few years, there have been many highly publicized outbreaks of food-borne illnesses that have heightened the public's awareness of food safety. Even though education can play a key role in protecting consumers, it usually boils down to practicing good food handling and preparation techniques - not just during the holidays, but all year long.

Enjoy a safe holiday meal. For more information, contact McKay at 986-4720.

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