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Food safety this holiday season

     About 48 million Americans become sick from foodborne illness each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Foodborne illness, also called food poisoning, is caused by eating contaminated food.
     One in six Americans become ill from known and unknown bacteria, viruses and microbes each year, according to the CDC. These illnesses will result in approximately 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. 
     Many of these illnesses can be avoided. We have an obligation to keep food safe for ourselves and our families. The way we handle, store and cook food can mean the difference between a satisfying meal or a bout with E.coli or salmonella.
     Purchasing, storing and preparing food, especially fresh meat and poultry products, presents many challenges to consumers. As wise and safety-conscious shoppers, it is our responsibility to keep food safe once it leaves our local grocery store or meat market.
     Always buy food from a reputable dealer with a known record for safe handling. If you don’t know if the meat is fresh, ask. Talk to a neighbor or friend who’s shopped there before.
U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) advises to buy dated products only if the “sell by” or “use by” date has not expired. While these dates are helpful, they are reliable only if the food has been kept at the proper temperature during storage and handling. Although many products bear “sell by” and “use by” dates, product dating is not a federal requirement.
When we purchase products labeled “keep refrigerated,” do so only if they are stored in a refrigerated case and cold to the touch, USDA advises. Buy frozen products only if they are frozen solid. Never buy anything frozen that feels mushy.
     Buy packaged precooked foods only if the package is sound – not damaged or torn.
     One of the best recipes for food safety in the home begins with you. There is no substitute for personal hygiene. As my mother always asked before we ever touched food being prepared for our family, “Have you washed your hands?”
     Always, always wash hands with hot soapy water before and after handling food. Be careful to wash between your fingers and pay special attention to your nails. Avoid handling food when ill or you have cuts or sores on your hands.
     Avoid cross contamination. To prevent raw meat and poultry from contaminating foods that will be eaten without further cooking, enclose individual packages of raw meat or poultry in plastic bags. Position packages of raw meat or poultry in your shopping cart and later in your refrigerator so their juices cannot drip on other food.
     Always shop for perishables last. Keep refrigerated and frozen items together so they will remain cold. Place perishables in the coolest part of your car during the trip home. Pack them in an ice chest if the time from store to home refrigerator will be more than one hour.
     While preparing food – especially raw meats – for your family, be sure to wash and sanitize cutting boards and knives before, during and after. Never put food on a plate that previously held raw meat, poultry or seafood.
     Remember to refrigerate or freeze perishables, prepared food and leftovers within two hours. Never defrost or marinate food on the kitchen counter. Use the refrigerator, cold water or microwave to defrost. Throw away marinating liquid. It could contain harmful bacteria.
     Always cook food to the proper internal temperature. Check for doneness with a thermometer.
     While most of these suggestions sound simple, a common-sense approach the next time you shop and prepare food could ensure a safer product for your family.