Imagine this: You’re at Thanksgiving dinner, your plate is piled high, and you’ve eaten more than half of it. You overhear the cooks in the kitchen talking and your Aunt Belle pipes up in her shrill voice, “Yeah, I ran out of time, so I thawed out the turkey on the counter overnight.”
You may sigh and say a silent prayer. But then, after you have eaten your pumpkin pie, you hear your Uncle Barney say, “Oh man, I was sick with the stomach flu all week. I barely got the pie made.”
Hmmm, what could be lurking in your Thanksgiving dinner?
Each year, about 48 million people, one in six Americans, get sick from something they ate. If unreported, untreated and misdiagnosed cases are added, the number may exceed 80 million.
Food-borne illnesses are one of the most commonly reported infectious diseases. Some of these illnesses occur during the holidays as the result of contaminated food and poor food-handling practices.
Contaminated food is food that was tainted before you got it home; poor food-handling practices usually happen at home (remember Auntie Belle).
For healthy people, most of the symptoms of “food poisoning” (nausea, upset stomach, frequent trips to the bathroom) usually go away within a few hours or days without any treatment. But for some people the symptoms can be so severe they result in organ failure, coma and death, especially when a more aggressive strain of bacterial infection is involved.
Food-borne illnesses in the home are more common around Thanksgiving and Christmas. A University of Illinois report found that incorrectly prepared turkey accounted for approximately 20 percent of all bacterial food-borne outbreaks since 1966. Raw turkey may contain campylobacter, salmonella or e-coli. Freezing does not kill these bacteria, but they should be destroyed if food is handled and cooked properly.
Beyond the bird
So, maybe you are now convinced to stay away from the turkey at Thanksgiving. Think that salad is safe? Think again. While that turkey is the No. 1 most dangerous food, leafy greens are the second most dangerous food according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Greens can be contaminated with e-coli, and so can Uncle Jack’s coleslaw and Grannie’s unpasteurized apple cider.
Hear the doorbell ring? Watch out for that neighbor who brought over his home-canned cranberry sauce and relish. Home-processed foods account for about 72 percent of all botulism cases.
Well, maybe you won’t eat anything that someone else cooked — only store-bought foods for you. But before you stick your hands in the bowl of chips and enjoy the salty goodness, ask yourself, “Did the little cousins wash their hands after they used the bathroom (played outside, wiped their eyes, coughed into them) and before they stuck those same grimy little hands into the precious chip bowl?” Oh, and keep an eye on your sister-in-law; she has a bad double-dipping habit.
Sounds like a lot to worry about, especially on a holiday, but don’t even assume we’re exaggerating the seriousness of the problem. Thirty-five percent of mishandling of food occurs in the home. According to an FDA health and diet survey of consumers and home cooks:
• 25 percent of home food handlers only rinse or wipe their hands after handling raw poultry.
• 25 percent only rinse or wipe the knife/cutting board after using it for raw turkey
• 27 percent thaw turkey on the counter.
• 44 percent never use a meat thermometer.
• 40 percent leave cooked food at room temperatures for more than two hours.
• 12 percent think cooked turkey left on the counter overnight is safe to eat.
Wash those hands
Everyone wants to enjoy a delicious Thanksgiving meal. Many food-borne illnesses are preventable so take a few extra steps to ensure that the only regrets after that big dinner will be from overeating. No one wants to see family members dropping like flies from illness before the first football game.
Here are some tips from the American Association of Poison Control Centers to keep that uninvited Thanksgiving guest — food-borne illness — from ruining your holiday:
• If you’ve been sick, you’re not doing anyone a favor by bringing your germ-filled Jell-O.
• Handle food carefully.
• Cook food thoroughly.
• Wash your hands often.
• Do not use the same spoon for stirring and tasting.
• Keep leftovers, properly stored, only three to four days.
• Use small and shallow dishes to refrigerate leftovers so they cool quickly.
• Never use the same plate or utensils for raw and uncooked poultry.
So go over the river and through the woods for Thanksgiving, but take your hand sanitizer and food thermometer with you to Grandmother’s house. Enjoy a weekend off from school and eat a wonderful feast.
Next, let’s talk about that Easter ham and egg salad.
Rachel Badali is a senior in Electronic High School. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.