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Published on November 23, 2015

Don’t let “cafeteria germs” crash your holiday dinnerDon’t let “cafeteria germs” crash your holiday dinner

The Thanksgiving feast is the centerpiece of the annual gathering of family and friends, but make sure food poisoning doesn’t show up as an unwanted guest.

Food bacteria like clostridium perfringens, also known as the “cafeteria germ,” can invade your dishes if proper preparation and refrigeration rules are ignored, warned Amy Rose Sager, the per diem dietitian for the Visiting Nurse Association of Cape Cod.

“Bacteria can grow when food is left at room temperature for more than two hours,” she said. “Hot food should be kept hot and cold food should be kept cold, because bacteria thrive between 41 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, which is called the danger zone. Keeping lower or higher than those temperatures will help slow down the growth of bacteria.”

Food poisoning is often disguised as other illnesses, Sager said. “People can get a foodborne illness at the holidays and think it’s the flu.”

The first step for food safety is planning who brings what if family members are traveling with food contributions. People coming from a distance should bring baked goods and other non-perishables, while those who live within about 30 minutes can safely bring meat and dairy products, according to an advisory about traveling with food posted on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln web site.

“When traveling with food, keep hot foods hot by wrapping them in foil, and then in heavy towels, or carry them in insulated wrappers or containers designed to keep food hot,” says the advisory. “Place cold foods in a cooler with ice or freezer packs or an insulated container with a cold pack.”

Another way to prevent foodborne illnesses is by practicing good kitchen habits.

“It’s important to wash your hands between cutting raw meats and handling vegetables,” said Sager. “It seems like it would be so easy but people get careless, and that’s an easy path for cross-contamination.

“Be aware of the cutting board. After preparing or cutting meats, don’t use it for fruits, vegetables or bread unless it’s been cleaned and sanitized. It’s not a bad idea to have a few different cutting boards.”

Turkey should be cooked until it’s 165 degrees, although Sager says 180 is better. “Take the temperature in several locations, especially in the thickest part of the breast,” she said. “Pop-up timers can pop up too quickly due to fat pooling in the tips.”

Season the inside of your turkey but cook the stuffing outside, advised food-safety expert Bryan Severns on the Kansas State University web site.

“For a great tasting bird, rub the inside of the cavity with a seasoning/spice blend made from some salt and pepper and maybe a diced onion or fruit,” Severns said. “Meanwhile, stuffing and dressing should be cooked separately to ensure the bird cooks all the way to 165 degrees Fahrenheit and that your dressing isn’t based in raw turkey juices.”

Severns also said there’s no need to wash a turkey before cooking it. “Instead, washing raw poultry greatly increases the chances of food poisoning as water with the raw juice is likely to splash the cook and the cooking area,” he said.

Once the feast is served, keep an eye on the clock.

“A lot of time people will leave food out for a long time,” said Sager. “After two hours, foods need to go in to the fridge. And remember that leftovers are only good for three or four days.”

For more tips on holiday safety, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has instructions on how to calibrate a food thermometer, and the American Red Cross, where you can find tips for preventing burns and fires.